Mar 16

BLUE – “Too Close”

Popular76 comments • 5,214 views

#907, 8th September 2001

blue close The differences between Blue’s “Too Close” and Next’s “Too Close” don’t seem profound – four years, a few production gewgaws, a mild shift in context between male US R&B group and UK boyband – so why does the original make me smile and the cover make me wince? Might it just be that I don’t like Blue? Simon Cowell, who managed Five, had his fingers all over a pre-incarnation of Blue. But every boyband is pitched a little differently, however similar the origin stories. If Five were a cartoon attempt at the Spice Boys, Blue were All Saints’ younger brothers. A little cooler than the average boyband; a lot more knowing. They owed something to East 17 – the first British boyband to drop the niceties and sing about fucking – but they were a hell of a lot smoother and less awkwardly intriguing than Tony Mortimer’s mob.

In short, Blue had pretensions to sophistication which let them stand out. For a single or so, they fitted the bill – “All Rise”, their courtroom-conceit debut, was a good thrust at moody R&B pop. But their US takeover plans were strangled in the crib, thanks to Lee Ryan’s concern that a mourning nation might forget the lessons of “Earth Song”*. Their sophistication died on the vine. The Blue we meet on Popular are mostly just another boyband, albeit a smugger one than usual.

“Too Close” captures both sides of them. It’s theft with pedigree – “Too Close” was a 1998 summer jam in the USA, a modest hit here, and a single that walked the thin like between goofy and sexy with aplomb. Each of Next’s two lead singers confess their uncontrollable dancefloor excitement in a way that slides from apology to flirtation without a blink. It’s endearing at worst, and it helps that the track’s production gives them space to act, ad lib, and deliver fine R&B performances. There’s a scratchy little guitar line near the start that roots the song, linking old R&B to new – “Too Close” is a New Jack take on the ribald end of soul.

Blue – or producer Ray Ruffin – make several changes, none of which help the single. Most obviously, the track switches from a showcase for solo voices to a group effort, four singers stepping on each other’s lines, with the unison chorus brought higher in the mix. You see this a lot in the boyband era – tracks losing focus when adapted for multiple voices. “Too Close” isn’t nearly as egregious as “Against All Odds” was, but the shift to boyband mode muddles it. The production is more crowded, too – stray burps of vocoder at the beginning, synth washes smothering the verses, the arranger’s equivalent of a good spray of Lynx before Blue head out on the pull.

And that’s the problem, in the end. Blue aren’t strong enough to carry the song, but even if they were better, the shift in context to become a British boyband hit subtly reweights the song, and makes it somehow grimmer. No longer does “Too Close” call to mind steamy encounters in American nightclubs; instead it makes you think of unwanted stiffies at the school disco.



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  1. 1
    Tom on 2 Mar 2016 #

    *”Too Close” is our first proper excuse to talk about 9/11. You can talk about it whenever you like, of course, but the main entry touching on it in the blog is still a few posts away.

  2. 2
    Tom on 2 Mar 2016 #

    (And for any readers unaware, Lynx is the British name for teenage boy deodorant megabrand Axe.)

  3. 3
    enitharmon on 2 Mar 2016 #

    Must be galling to have a number one just when nobody was paying attention to it or much else.

    An unseasonably hot Tuesday afternoon. A whisper went round the office; was it true? Not going to get confirmation from the internet anyway; it’s effectively dead. Somebody downstairs had a radio. Nobody got any work done. Phones went unanswered. It wasn’t so much shock that something so appalling had happened; it was the sense of living in a dream: it couldn’t possib;ly be real.

  4. 4
    Tom on 2 Mar 2016 #

    #3 This wasn’t #1 then. That’s the next one! (The dates on Popular entries come from Everyhit, which are very misleading – they are the first Saturday a track is #1, which is often at the END of the run. But I’ve always used them so I’ve stuck with them.)

    The 9/11 connection here is more tenuous: the video for this was filmed in NYC and the band were there when it happened. A month later singer Lee Ryan expressed his disappointment that everyone was worried about people being killed and not about elephants. The effects on their US career were predictable.

  5. 5
    Ricardo on 2 Mar 2016 #

    And with this, it’s two #1 boyband singles reworking (only slightly, mind) two US #1’s from the R&B world which didn’t exactly set the British (and European too, it must be said) charts on fire in their original incarnations. The other one, of course, was Another Level’s take on Silk’s “Freak Me”.hhh
    And yes, both stink to high heavens of PG-rated naughtiness – the remakes, of course!

  6. 6
    Ronnie on 2 Mar 2016 #

    As an American, I can say definitively that without “Love Actually” most Americans would never have heard of Blue at all.

    The easy thing to say is that the translation of black/American to white/British is what kills this but I’m fairly certain I’d hate this if a jackoff like Jason DeRulo or somebody did this too.

  7. 7
    JLucas on 2 Mar 2016 #

    There is an interesting passing of the torch narrative to be drawn between 90s survivors 5ive enjoying their last significant hit just as new kids on the block Blue cemented their status as the next big UK boyband.

    The problem I always had with Blue is that aside from Lee Ryan’s status as one of pop’s most compelling pillocks, they were just no fun whatsoever. Perfectly competent, at least two of them could sing, wildly popular, but when I look at their catalogue of hits, all I feel is complete and total apathy.

    I would actually argue that we’re about to enter one of the worst ever periods for home-grown pop music, typified by Blue, Atomic Kitten and Liberty X being the leading UK-based pop groups of the time. The shiny pop of the 90s was dead, and the new pop was cooler, slicker and less obviously eager to please. But the sounds that would define the 21st century hadn’t arrived yet, so what we were left with was dull, workmanlike fare like this and Eternal Flame – pallid and imagination-free attempts at beating the Americans at their own game.


    P.S. Just looked ahead and without spoiling anything, Egads what a pair of chart toppers to soundtrack the darkest period of modern history. I don’t associate either of the next two #1s with 9/11 at all, though I suppose it’s true that music wasn’t really on anybody’s minds at the time. In fact I can’t see a single chart topper that could seriously be argued to reflect the prevailing mood at the time until, at a push, the second posthumous chart topper of 2002 and more substantially the #1 that followed it. But we’re a while away from any of that…

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 2 Mar 2016 #

    in the original version there’s a sense that the singers understand the ridiculousness of the lyrics and are generous enough to share the joke while remaining faithful to the inherent horniness of the sentiment. Blue play it straight and end up sounding crass, leery and humourless.

  9. 9
    JoeWiz on 2 Mar 2016 #

    I really loved ‘All Rise’. It never goes overboard with boyband emoting, a problem for numerous post Take That groups, and theres an oddly British feel to it, it’s cold, stark almost unforgiving.
    Literally none of that is visible here, and to my mind they never get anywhere near that quality through the rest of their singles.
    At the time I didn’t know this was a cover, but i did know it was pedestrian and uninspiring – it’s only saving grace was the mildly unexpected female vocal chiming in – was this anyone well known?
    Oh, and I loved their Eurovision song.

  10. 10
    AMZ1981 on 2 Mar 2016 #

    We’ll meet Blue two more times including once before 2001 is done. If Too Close had been their only chart topper then it could be treated as a With A Girl Like You. All Rise was the Blue hit that mattered. The courtroom metaphor was rather beaten to death by the end of the song but it made for a comparatively unusual lyric and was quite striking by boy band standards.

    For the sake of context what Lee Ryan actually said was, `What about whales? They are ignoring animals that are more important. This New York thing is more important.` At which point his bandmate Simon Webbe told him to shut up and Lee added, `Who gives a fuck about New York when elephants are being killed.` Duncan James then told him to shut up to which the response was, `I’m not afraid to say this, it has to be said, that’s why I’m the outspoken one in the band.`This was in a BBC interview (and the expletive can’t have been ideal for a band seeking a predominantly underage fanbase. It’s interesting that he more or less got away with it, given that he was hardly so well known that he wasn’t sackable.

    Speaking of 9/11, by way of clarification the next number one along is the record that happened to be number one when it happened followed by the one that was selling most units while we stared at our screens and tried to imagine the horror. The absence of a proper 9/11 record is interesting in itself.

    But none of this could be foreseen as Blue celebrated joining the pantheon of number one hitmakers. Also selling well that week was Uncle Kracker’s Follow Me at three which outsold most of the year’s chart toppers and proved one of the most unusual hits of the years. A place below was Louise’s routine cover of Stuck In The Middle Of You which had one of the year’s most bizarre videos. Even more interestingly Emma Bunton could only make number five with her follow up to What Took You So Long.

    Finally the week Too Close was at number one was a landmark week for me personally. I’ve alluded to my teenage nervous breakdown a few times because the last four years worth of chart toppers formed part of the soundtrack to it. I’d like to think that the years I was 18 and 19 were spent going to gigs and hanging with hot boys on the beach but it was never to be. However on 4th September 2001 I got myself a job working at a local supermarket. Fourteen years later I’m a manager at a convenience store. So from now on the number one singles soundtrack happier times.

  11. 11
    thefatgit on 2 Mar 2016 #

    So we’re here, but I’m not quite ready to talk about September 11th just yet. So I won’t.

    Blue’s “All Rise” was a likeable gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. Arriving in the wake of this, Blue covers a minor hit from US R&B group Next. Blue’s “Too Close” has plenty of bump, but lacks any grind to be considered any good. On the whole, it’s a faithful copy. But. There’s something extra in the production that doesn’t necessarily belong there. With Next, there’s a bit of cool piano chord action that plays against some retro synth. With Blue, their synth has to work against processed strings and extra twinkly bits, that end up fighting against the bassline which held the original together so well, throws the whole song out of balance. (3)

  12. 12
    mapman132 on 2 Mar 2016 #

    Another underwhelming cover. Not as comically bad as Another Level’s take on “Freak Me”, but still not very good. Seems like the UK chart was in a bit of a funk at this point. None of the #1’s from “The Way To Your Love” to this had any US impact, and it sounds like we didn’t miss much.

    And knowing nothing about Blue, learning about the 9/11 comment doesn’t exactly endear me to them. Really dumb thing to say, especially for someone who was there when it happened.

  13. 13
    mapman132 on 2 Mar 2016 #

    JLucas’s postscript @7 is kind of what I think of the US number ones at the time too. It’s interesting how any mention of the otherwise forgotten US #1 “I’m Leaving It Up To You” by Dale and Grace will inevitably point out that it was #1 on November 22, 1963, but no one ever comments about Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real” being #1 on September 11, 2001. For a long time I actually thought Alicia Keys’ “Fallin” was #1. Irregardless, neither “I’m Real” nor “Fallin” fit the mood at the time.

    Plenty more to say about 9/11, but I’m going to hold off for now.

  14. 14
    James BC on 3 Mar 2016 #

    Once again the better debut track (All Rise) misses number 1 because its organically building popularity means its sales are more spread out than the less inspired follow-up (this). A problem that streaming might be solving in the present day?

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    Steve Williams on 3 Mar 2016 #

    #7 Blue were mostly quite dull, but I must pay tribute to Antony Costa for his wonderful performance on Never Mind The Buzzcocks in its Amstell-helmed imperial phase. Amstell was at his funniest and Costa laughed heartily at all the jokes about him and Blue – which was virtually the whole show – and was perfectly happy to send himself up throughout. He always did seem the most likeable member of Blue, mostly because he came across as a cheery bloke who couldn’t believe his luck he was in a band.

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    Chelovek na lune on 3 Mar 2016 #

    Hmm, I didn’t *mind* early period Blue, overall – I think they put out a number of pretty decent, if not overly remarkable or noteworthy, pop-dance tracks, even if several of them seemed to be treading the same rather narrow groove. As passable radio-wallpaper music, some of them (one of them yet to be discussed here) were perfectly tolerable, and pretty much a model for a decidedly 2000s update of the boy band model.

    This though…..maybe demonstrated why they were better off treading that narrow groove. (I don’t recall hearing this at the time at all, too.) Really forgettable in comparison with most of their other early singles, and vaguely cringeworthy in its earnestness when it attempts to be “sexy”. Too straight a reading by far. (4)

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    Kinitawowi on 3 Mar 2016 #

    #15 I thought it was actually pretty obvious that he was hating the whole thing from start to finish, desperately clinging on for any moment of respect he could find (allowing himself to concede to enjoying one joke about Blue’s writers) while trying not to stoop to the Preston level of actually walking out. By “so when WAS the last time you had the city on lockdown?” he clearly just wanted to go and hide in a hole somewhere.

  18. 18
    AuntieBeryl on patrol on 3 Mar 2016 #

    Whilst I’m disappointed we don’t get any sort of visibility upon the TVs for the chart these days, I don’t miss Buzzcocks. What a bucket that was. Yay, satire from 2004.

  19. 19
    wichitalineman on 4 Mar 2016 #

    Re 18: Has Never Mind The Buzzcocks finally gone? It seemed to have hung around since the Britpop/Loaded era. Always one token female guest. Awful.

    As for Too Close, I didn’t mind it half as much as most commenters. The slickness of the strings reminded me of ersatz Philly, or Barry White if you like, dressed up for the spray-tan beige-pop early 00s era. And the way the chorus shifts up midway through the second line is quite inspired (granted, I’ve never heard the original).

    From memory, Lee Ryan’s September 11th comments were no more idiotic than Stockhausen’s, so I don’t want to kick him too hard.

  20. 20
    Kinitawowi on 4 Mar 2016 #

    #19: The BBC have mandated one token female on every episode of all their panel shows now (it’s probably at least part of the reason why Stephen Fry is quitting QI).

    Buzzcocks finally died last year – consensus was that the meanness was starting to get on top of it.

  21. 21
    Mark G on 4 Mar 2016 #

    Consensus (round our way, anyway) was that it was a little bit better under Rhod Gilbert, but it was well past its best and was basically somewhere for Noel Fielding’s mates to hang out. Whether or not they had any knowledge of pop music or no.

  22. 22
    James BC on 4 Mar 2016 #

    Buzzcocks was sometimes pretty great, especially with Amstell, and sometimes a hot bucket of bumwash.

    My most consistent complaint, which applies to a lot of other newer panel shows, was that no-one was very interested in the quiz element. A panel show only works if you can buy into the fiction that everyone is there to compete in a quiz, since a lot of the humour comes from subverting or working against the restrictions of that format, or from competition between the contestants. Take away the quiz element and all that’s left is a bunch of people sitting there amorphously trying to be funny – a much less appealing prospect.

  23. 23
    Tom on 4 Mar 2016 #

    TBH I only watched it a couple of times. It was one of those things, like High Fidelity, which people assumed you’d like once you’d identified yourself as a “music fan”. But it did nothing for me at all.

  24. 24
    Pink champale on 4 Mar 2016 #

    ha! yes. It’s awful trying to think of a polite way to say ‘no, actually I’m much better than that’.
    I do think it briefly got good during the Amstell interregnum, but was otherwise solidly horrible, even if you discount them giving Phil Jupitus employment for nearly 20 years. Which I can’t.
    Mind you has anyone seen that Ricky KeiserChief programme on Sky??? Christ.

  25. 25
    wichitalineman on 4 Mar 2016 #

    Re 23: I feel the same way about 6Music. Too close to what I actually want to be something I use. And the trailers – “the best music you’ve never heard” etc, in a creamy, patronising voice – make me want to smash my radio.

  26. 26
    wichitalineman on 4 Mar 2016 #

    That wasn’t very clear. Let me rephrase that… 6Music is close to what I actually want from a radio station, but is so confident that it’s *exactly* what I want that I’m completely put off. Does that make sense to anyone else?

  27. 27
    Pink champ ale on 4 Mar 2016 #

    Yes, that’s exactly how I’ve always felt about it. Whenever I’ve listened I’ve heard a couple of old things I like and something new that sounds quite interesting, which should be great in theory, but I just somehow find it all really offputting. Plus, they gave Phil Jupitus employment for years….

  28. 28
    Pink champ ale on 4 Mar 2016 #

    Also their late night line up featuring a parade of stuff that sounds exactly like Jojn Peel used to play when I was a teenager interspersed with stuff that WAS played by Peel 25 years ago just makes me feel depressed.

  29. 29
    Tom on 4 Mar 2016 #

    I’m similar – I know it plays a lot more than the music of my youth, but it plays enough of it that I feel like it’s pandering to me, trying to make me feel validated for liking The Wedding Present, Ride, The Sundays, Kenickie, Pulp, Underworld, etc. I feel like I can make my own decisions about the late 80s and the 90s and what’s worth hearing now, to be honest.

    I want a station that plays the newest stuff on 6 and the newest stuff on 1Xtra mixed together and doesn’t try to make me feel special for being born when I was. But the honest truth is I probably wouldn’t listen to that either, so whatever, keep on keeping on, 6 Music!

  30. 30
    Steve Williams on 4 Mar 2016 #

    Well, I enjoyed Costa on Buzzcocks and I reckon he took it in absolutely wonderful spirit, he’s not so good an actor that he can look like he’s having fun when he isn’t. It always seemed fun on Amstell-era Buzzcocks because Amstell was always the first to take the piss out of himself and the show, which he did frequently, and I never found any of it anywhere near as unpleasant as towards the end of Lamarr’s reign, his encounter with Gail Porter was extremely unpleasant.

    For what it’s worth, I think there were two good periods of Buzzcocks, from around about 1998 to 2000, when it had settled in and before Lamarr started phoning it in, and then the Amstell era because it was so funny. What I liked about it under Amstell was that it seemed to replicate Smash Hits in imperial phase and actually have opinions. The bit I always mention is when there was a joke about Chris Moyles and then Amstell said “Other Radio 1 DJs include Fearne Cotton and Jo Whiley. It’s not good enough, is it?” It was just great to see a show that seemed to be on the viewers’ side. Also as well what I liked about Amstell on Popworld and Buzzcocks is that it wasn’t about who was cool but who was funny and wanted to join in, so on Popworld McFly would be welcomed because they joined in, but Girls Aloud didn’t.

    After Amstell left it lost all that was good about it. I thought Rhod Gilbert was a mistake, not just because I don’t particularly like him, but because it meant all three regulars were over forty, while all the guests were fifteen, so it wasn’t really satisfying anyone. It should have either aged with the audience and not bothered with modern music at all, or replaced the whole cast with younger people who knew and liked current music and so could satirise it from within, like Amstell did.

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