Jan 17

GARETH GATES – “Unchained Melody”

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#922, 30th March 2002

unchainedgates Making sense of Simon Cowell requires negotiating a maze of banalities – a host of things which are, like judges’ verdicts on a reality show, obvious and lacking insight, but nonetheless true. For instance, saying “Simon Cowell cares about money more than music” is a lazy criticism, but it’s also surely right. Saying “Whoever wins, Cowell is the real winner” is a similar no-shit-Sherlock conclusion, and equally hard to deny.

If we turn over these obvious stones, is there anything wriggling underneath? Maybe there is. Take Simon Cowell’s taste in music. It’s not that he doesn’t like music – he has a set of preferences. It’s more that once he became a reality impresario, the exact contours of his taste became a source of competitive advantage. Some of the reality TV judge’s power is unpredictability – anything that compromises the unpredictability, like a known aesthetic, is a weakness.

But of course there are things Cowell likes, and we know roughly what they are. He doesn’t strike me as enough of an iconoclast to lie on Desert Island Discs, for instance, so his selection there from 2003 is a good start. “Mack The Knife”. Sinatra. “She”. Sammy Davis Jr. Herb Alpert. And Daniel Bedingfield, either as a sop to the present or a proposal that the tradition he’s outlining isn’t quite dead.

By rock standards, this is a square’s list, defiantly so. It’s the list of someone who believes, perhaps, that pop’s appointed role is a beloved wing of an entertainment multiplex, and that rock’s breakaway move towards emphasis on self-expression, experiment, volume and so on was a descent from these populist heights. Or to put it more kindly, since several of Cowell’s choices are excellent records, perhaps he’s a man who appreciates performance, and believes that specialist singers and specialist songwriters are best kept to their own devices.

Or it could mean neither of these things. But just those summaries are enough to suggest where Cowell might be coming from, and also to suggest that he was in tune with strong currents in pop – not just the golden-goose blandness of Westlife but the separation of producer and performer that was driving R&B forward. Whatever else he was, Simon Cowell was not out of touch. In fact, the only thing that makes me doubt the Desert Island list is that it’s a little too neat a manifesto for what the “Simon” TV persona might appreciate.

“Unchained Melody”, the song we’re supposedly discussing, was on Cowell’s castaway list too. An old song – by 60s standards – when the Righteous Brothers got hold of it, it fits his milieu of tracks with wide, adult appeal and big emotions. If “Anything Is Possible” was written as a generic victory ballad for a neophyte, “Unchained Melody” was written knowing it might end up with a heavyweight.

The hunger and need in “Unchained Melody” is explicitly geological – a longing carved over time in the heart like a river slowly cuts its path through earth and rock. It’s a stoical kind of a need, born from the original film’s prison setting, but also the product of an early 50s song culture where the heroic epitome was still the patient soldier. It’s a very different ache from the rutting, urgent desire of rock and roll – which is what makes the Righteous Brothers’ version so remarkable, as they bridge that difference, give teenage need the weight of landscape. And it’s different again from the hunger of Gareth Gates, which is more like the eager mewling of a newly hatched chick.

Gates’ version isn’t as bad as that sounds. He can’t ruin the song, so he’s instantly better than the singing squaddies. But what he brings to it – the bright-eyed, clean-voiced optimism of a boy given a lifetime’s chance – he would bring to any song. Will Young did his best with a mediocre song. Gareth Gates smooths out an excellent one. Three weeks on top of the charts plays four. I’m not sure who wins.

Aside, of course, from Simon. That was my other truism – the judge is the winner in reality TV pop. Not the only one (least of all here, where investment in the contestants was widespread and real) but the constant one. As JLucas very helpfully pointed out in the comments on the last post, what really distinguishes this series of Pop Idol was the astounding number of its contestants who managed to score hits afterwards. In a tight competition, success for the runner-up was assured. But Pop Idol meant Top Ten singles for singers who’d come nowhere near to victory.

The Simon who stood to gain most from that bonanza was Fuller, who began the series as behind-the-scenes senior partner and format developer. By the end, Cowell was ascendant, the man who realised the power of the reality show host. Which is not to determine who wins or loses, but to set the boundaries of the game, and to name the real stakes.

A reality show mogul dwells in the delta between popularity and outrage, living off the arbitrage. Cowell was cagey about the music he actually liked, but never about the contestants he favoured or disliked. By an imperial nod towards Gareth, not Will, Cowell ensured that the crowd would play their part and vote to spite him. It didn’t matter – he had shown that the drama of reality TV didn’t lie in “who will win?” so much as “will the judge get their way?”. Either outcome made the show more about him. Within the bubble of spectacle, Cowell ruled.



  1. 1
    flahr on 19 Jan 2017 #

    What an appalling sleeve. Did Gareth even know he was being photographed?

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 20 Jan 2017 #

    Kompetent Karaoke. GG brings little to the song beyond a sweet boyish tone and an ability to hit most of the right notes.
    Bands and singers used to have to ‘pay their dues’ – something that was dismissed by punk but still lingered on in one form or another. Reality Pop can’t wait that long and fits (possibly even created) the TV format that suggests that most skills – whether cooking, skating, dancing, diving, singing, or being an entrepreneur – can be picked up over a few weeks. ‘Winners’ are elevated to a position from which most will only decline.

  3. 3
    AMZ1981 on 20 Jan 2017 #

    Gareth Gates entered the Pop Idol final as the firm favourite and there was some surprise when Will Young pipped him. Even then there was a perception that Gareth was the more obvious pop star and might well prove to have the more successful career. With fifteen years hindsight we know that this is the way it often turned out in reality TV shows. We also know that in this particular case it didn’t. It becomes all the more interesting when you consider that losing arguably worked in Gareth Gates’ favour as it gifted him the better song; I doubt even the writers of Evergreen would have suggested that their effort was remotely comparable to Unchained Melody and poor Will Young got that as his winner’s prize.

    The above paragraph ultimately says more about Will Young’s career than it does about his rival’s. To be fair to Gareth Gates he remains one of the more successful reality show stars by most standards and his stock today fifteen years on is no less than (for example) Kim Appleby or Tiffany’s was in 2002. The really interesting bit comes with the second singles and when Will Young appeared to be on the ropes slightly, but we’ll get to that in due course.

    With no Unchained Melody we would be discussing two records here. One is Britney Spears’ I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman which is probably best described as curious. More sadly we didn’t get a once in a lifetime (sorry!) opportunity to discuss David Byrne guesting on X Press 2’s excellent track Lazy.

  4. 4
    ThePensmith on 20 Jan 2017 #

    And then there was the runner up. I will put my hand up here and say that, at the time, for the whole year and a bit he was popular (pardon the pun), Gareth got on my knackers immensely, largely due to him being more omnipresent than Will was in press and on TV – case in point, this spending a week longer at the top than Will did. And also case in point, when this won ITV “Record of the Year” on one of the rare years that Westlife didn’t.

    With hindsight, he was a nice guy really, and thus the ballad heavy pop he was given was harmless even if it wasn’t earth shattering. But nice and clean cut can only get you so far. I’ll touch on this more at his later bunnies (his next one being an absolute corker) but a number of factors can explain why his success was limited to this year and a bit only. As for “Unchained Melody” – a 3 from me.

    Also interesting to note here: his versions of “Evergreen” and “Anything is Possible” were the B-sides to this. Gareth made no secret of the fact he was a Westlife fan during Pop Idol – “Flying Without Wings” was his audition song – so it was obvious that Simon picked the winner’s singles with him firmly in mind. Listening back to Gareth’s versions on YouTube, I think Will’s vocal delivery of certainly “Evergreen” may have been what tipped the scales in his favour.

    #3 – I always loved “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”. It’s for me probably one of the few times Britney actually carried off a ballad, but was also something of a swansong to her old Cherion produced sound and the more “innocent” era of her career. From her next single onwards, Max Martin would be otherwise nowhere to be seen on the credits of a single of hers until the end of the 00s.

    Also charting the same week “Unchained Melody” debuted at the top, which I would love to have discussed was Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Tainted Love”. It ended up going no higher than #5, but made the transition from Soft Cell’s 80s electro to heavy rock surprisingly well.

  5. 5
    Alan Connor on 20 Jan 2017 #

    Apologies if yesterday’s version of this non-urgent comment appears too (wifi issue, I think…). I have vivid memories of passing Albert Bridge in a Nissan Micra, remonstrating about how Desert Island Discs guests are supposed to use music as biographical signposts, not to invade the format and twist it into effectively “here is A Great Songbook and by implication I am the Man who Determines what might be A Great Songbook”, devoid of feel.

  6. 6
    cryptopian on 20 Jan 2017 #

    @1: Not that Will’s sleeve is much better.

    Now that we’ve got the last one out the way, might as well do these all in one

    1 (7/10) – Righteous Brothers: Good phrasing, lush production, everything that people love about the brothers, and about the song. Shame it took a romcom to push it up to number one
    2 (3/10) – Gareth Gates: There was an attempt, but it very much sounds exactly how a pop contest star trying to sing Unchained Melody would sound like.
    3 (2-3/10) – Jimmy Young: The best thing that happened to the standard of Unchained Melody was the shift from 4/4 to 12/8 metre (were the Righteous Brothers the cause of this?). In 4/4, and especially in this version, the beats are heavily accentuated, leaving a tender love song feeling incredibly mechanical. This is not helped by Jimmy, who lands every beat right on the nose.
    4 (1/10) – Robson & Jerome: In the Righteous Brother’s version, the “to the sea, yeah” line has a fluidity and dreaminess to it. In this, the duo hits “yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah” with mechanical force. That one line delivery (and the cheap production) sums the whole song up for me.

  7. 7
    enitharmon on 20 Jan 2017 #

    Flahr @1: Is the cover picture meant to be suggestive, is it very much is to me, of a young Elvis? Or perhaps not Elvis, of a generic 1950s rock’n’roller? Not very convincing anyway, for a souped-up lounge singer.

    It’s always worth mentioning, lest it be forgotten, that UM is a prison song from a prison film about a reforming prison governor; a film that is not at all bad judging by the accounts I’ve read but which I’ve never seen and can’t seem to trace on DVD. A kind of self-pitying Folsom Prison Blues without the fuck-you attitude. I can’t help feeling that Gareth Gates became, like too many others, Simon Cowell’s prisoner.

  8. 8
    enitharmon on 20 Jan 2017 #

    Cryptopian @ 7: I bet the Righteous Brothers shifted more copies in 1965 and it got a lot of airplay, so was one of the familiar sounds of the day. It helped in those early Pirate Radio days that it was also exactly the kind of thing that went down well on Two-Way Family Favourites (so the song has a slight tang of lumpy Bisto for me). Anyway, I’m kinda resentful of that poor girl’s Truly Madly Deeply so don’t feel inclined to give it credit for that version.

  9. 9
    James BC on 20 Jan 2017 #

    A cover of a cover of a cover. The Righteous Brothers covered the original, Robson and Jerome’s version was mainly informed by the Righteous Brothers. What poor Gareth is doing here is very obviously a cover of the Robson and Jerome version.

  10. 10
    JLucas on 20 Jan 2017 #

    Cowell describing Robyn’s ‘With Every Heartbeat’ as “a cheap piece of rubbish” is something that always comes to mind when I think of his engagement with modern music.

    This has the feel of an X Factor winner’s single even moreso than Will’s, in the sense that it was obviously rushed out to keep Gareth in the public eye despite the narrative not going the way Cowell had expected. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the genesis of the ‘Boys vs Girls’ conclusion of Popstars: The Rivals two years later.

    In an era of Westlife domination, it’s hard to even be actively offended by this. Like Gareth himself, it’s passable, ticks the required boxes but exudes nothing in the way of personality. He had a couple of better songs, but while Will Young would use Pop Idol as a springboard, it felt like the end of Gareth’s personal narrative. He didn’t exude any of the personality or ambition to take it further.


  11. 11
    Izzy on 20 Jan 2017 #

    7: perhaps not Elvis, of a generic 1950s rock’n’roller? My first thought was a solo Morrissey sleeve, ’til I wondered why he’d be in Popular and looked a little closer.

  12. 12
    andsayyoutried on 20 Jan 2017 #

    Howdy all…it’s been a VERY long time. So much so that I couldn’t remember my username, which old email address I used, nor that hideous picture from two houses ago;) Anyway…

    In what I’m sure was common for Second Year Uni kids around the country, I was the Token Indie Fan in a house full of popsters..One who found himself in whilst everybody else was working ( I know, I know) on the day of the PopIdol Final, so I had to watch the blasted thing in order to tell them what happened. For a suitable analogy, think Paul Merton’s character in the TV adaptation of ‘An Evening With Gary Lineker’ ( “This one’s called Matt-House”)
    To this day I still don’t think they really believed me.

  13. 13
    andsayyoutried on 20 Jan 2017 #

    Furthermore: I actually remember this particular rundown, and Goodier was sounding SO bored at around this time. Compare his Barry Davies-esque gentleman-at-leisure-disinterest here with 1991 and it’s absolute night and day. (Even stranger when you consider he was the station’s Indie Kingpin back then. Hell, even NME loved him at that point)

  14. 14
    Ed on 22 Jan 2017 #

    @11 Or even more, a Smiths single. IIRC, Morrissey mostly put his own face on the covers of his solo records; singles and albums. And Gates is exactly the kind of figure who would have fascinated Morrissey if he’d been around 40 years earlier.

  15. 15
    thefatgit on 22 Jan 2017 #

    I rate this slightly higher than Evergreen, even after saying I voted for Will. Gareth actually does something with the song rather than just doing an R&J. Even back then, when the missus was cooing over Gareth, I’d have to admit she had a point. He “looked” more like a Pop Idol, whatever that meant.

    I guess I rejected Gareth in favour of Will, because I might have subconsciously got sucked into a Simon Cowell trap: the “Journey.” It’s part and parcel of reality pop, but at the time it felt like the programme wanted me to care more than I should. Gareth’s journey was remarkable but I felt uncomfortable knowing I was being manipulated by it. This kid has a speech impediment, but when he sings…
    I’m not sure the Heroes Journey can win a reality pop show alone, but Cowell knew it wouldn’t hurt a contestant’s chances.

    Unchained Melody’s kiss off shows just how enduring one song can be, but even now I can’t admit to liking it that much. It works best for me under the guidance of the Righteous Brothers, but I suspect that’s down to flawless production and arrangement over performance. Here, Gareth fights off an obtrusive electric piano and revels in the opportunity to shine.

    The bunny prevents me mentioning another enduring song Gareth covers where he has way too much to fight off. (4)

  16. 16
    Shiny Dave on 23 Jan 2017 #

    Gareth is competent, but out of his depth here. His bright-eyed demeanour (and matching vocal timbre) could’ve been thrown on some more-than-adequate pop songs, but instead he got something which suffers from being smoothed out. 3 seems harsh but fair – this is comfortably less than the sum of its parts.

    (BTW, did #10 wake the bunny? I think #10 woke the bunny…)

  17. 17
    wichitalineman on 23 Jan 2017 #

    I’m not sure if it’s Cowell’s influence, or just the long, ultra-conservative shadow of Boyzone and Westlife, but I’ve always found it decidedly unpop that Pop Idol (and beyond) winners have always used their real names. Will Young and Gareth Gates could have been Terry Nelhams and Stuart Goddard in previous pop eras. How much poorer UK pop has been for this turn of events.

    Of course, some X Factors winners/entrants were mildly adventurous and just used their first names. The problem was that their first names weren’t anywhere near as distinctive as Prince or Madonna, or even Cilla or Petula.

  18. 18
    James BC on 24 Jan 2017 #

    One of Westlife did glam up his name, from Brian McFadden to Bryan McFadden.

    Wagner and Chico are quite distinctive first names.

    But yes, you are right. If this cover was credited to Chad Sexington I would probably give it a 6.

  19. 19
    Mark G on 24 Jan 2017 #

    I dunno, they could have been names they received!


    oh, I dunno…

  20. 20
    Alex on 24 Jan 2017 #

    I was working in an industrial bakery in Bradford when this was charting. Thanks to our godawful local commercial radio station The Pulse FM and Gates’ local hero card, it got played n times an hour all bleeding day. You couldn’t pay me to hear it once more.

  21. 21
    wichitalineman on 25 Jan 2017 #

    Re 18: Bunny alert! Didn’t want to name names just yet. But yes it made sense with C***o. And I suppose Daniel Bedingfield had begun this trend with such an unlikely pop star name. I think there’s a nasty smell of “real” about it though.

  22. 22
    Erithian on 26 Jan 2017 #

    Started the trend? First thing that came to mind when I read that was Norman Greenbaum, an even more unlikely pop star name.

  23. 23
    wichitalineman on 26 Jan 2017 #

    True it’s an unlikely pop star name, but it’s a stretch to say Norm started the 21st century no-pseudonym trend. The whole Glam and Punk eras in-between for a start.

  24. 24
    EPG on 2 Feb 2017 #

    This Pop Idol pair of singles sits back-to-back astride the decade’s sales chart, though Young wins pretty handsomely. Below them was Shaggy who, God bless him, seems to have overtaken “Melody” in the downloads since ’09.

  25. 25
    Mark M on 3 Feb 2017 #

    Re17 etc: On the flip side of that, I’ve always admired the mid-’90s rapper Keith Murray for sticking to his own-none-plainer name in the face of hip-hop conventions. Most other rappers who have shunned stage names have had the advantage of given names that sounded made-up anyway (Kanye West, Obie Trice*) – not so Mr Murray. Then again, the internet tells me that he started his career as MC Do Damage – so I’m guessing someone said to him, ‘If that’s the best you can come up with, maybe you should just stick to what it says on your driver’s licence.’

    *There’s Will Smith, of course, but he only reverted to that after rising to fame as the Fresh Prince.

  26. 26
    Phil on 5 Feb 2017 #

    As I’m blessed with the phenomenally boring surname Edwards, I spent a good half of my teenage rock-god fantasising time trying to work out what on earth I was going to call myself – I mean, I certainly wasn’t going to be a rock star under the name of Phil Edwards, was I? Look at David Bowie… or Peter Gabriel… or Peter Hammill (surname’s unusual at least, and Peter’s a great name, look at the Narnia books)… or Jon Anderson (John with no H, that’s distinctive)… I wondered about de Selby (too much?), I wondered about Warleigh (after my fellow flautist Ray W), but nothing stuck. Stardom looked like eluding me, curse the luck.

    To the extent that this line of thinking ever had a basis that wasn’t entirely spurious, it had a hole knocked in it shortly afterwards, when Peter Gabriel left Genesis and his role as frontman and de facto rock god was taken over by… Phil Collins.

  27. 27
    Chelovek na lune on 6 Feb 2017 #


    Easy. Richie Edwards > Richie Manic.

    Glamour, stardom, cult sex appeal and, admittedly, mania.

    I can see that would have been a high price to have paid

  28. 28
    Gareth Parker on 6 Jun 2021 #

    Lifeless arrangement and I think Gareth struggles with this one. 2/10 imho.

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