Jul 17

SUGABABES – “Freak Like Me”

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#924, 4th May 2002

sugafreak At The Disco

A scene from Phonogram III: The Immaterial Girl, by Gillen, McKelvie and Wilson, published in 2015. It’s the early 00s, at a disco somewhere in the south of England. A group of people who love music so much it’s become their life and the tools of their craft – magic in the comic’s world; writing, DJing and blogging in ours – have been brought together to scheme and to dance. One of them is Seth Bingo, a skinny guy in a T-Shirt saying “Mutya Keisha Siobhan”. The final name is crossed out, with “Heidi” scrawled underneath. Bingo, affected but handsome in a gaunt sort of way, is talking to another thin white man, a morose husk of a creature called Indie Dave. “What is your take – “ Bingo asks – “on the Babes Of Suga?”.

“My real take?” asks Dave, “Or my ironic one?”. And so Seth Bingo lays him out with an uppercut, the art exploding in colour around the punch.

Pop as something worth fighting over, worth making wild gestures for: Seth Bingo wasn’t the only one who liked that idea. In real-world enclaves on and off the Internet, young critics were taking up cudgels in the name of pop. Sometimes we were as showy and insufferable as Seth Bingo. Sometimes we shouted louder and harder to try and silence the Indie Daves we still glimpsed in mirrors. Most of the time though we were trying to answer honest questions – what was great about pop, and what did it mean to love it? I’m still trying to answer those questions. Let’s take another shot.

The Babes Of Suga

Phonogram gets its casus belli right: people who loved pop music really loved the Sugababes. The original Sugababes were as close as the early 00s had come to a credible – perhaps ‘cult’ is closer – pop act, making low-key R’n’B out of a sweet blend of young voices. In a pop world split between a kids’ concept of being teenage and a teenager’s concept of being adult, the Sugababes were teenagers being teenagers: awkward, moody, braiding together anxiety and mutuality. The twining, circling arrangements of their songs celebrated teenage friendship and support. The reality of their working lives, sometimes painfully obvious in press photos, was closer to the darker side of adolescent relationships: tension, bullying, hostility. They were appallingly young.

They were also only marginally successful. Superb debut “Overload” went top 10, but later singles stumbled. Two of the group – the original schoolfriend unit of Mutya and Keisha – forced Siobhan out (she went on to make Ghosts, one of the best pop LPs of the 00s). They recruited new member Heidi Range, who had a stint in Atomic Kitten on her CV: you could hardly imagine a pedigree more at odds with the group’s carefully-established image of authenticity. Fans of the group – or at least, older fans like me – assumed the jig was up.

For “Freak Like Me” the Sugababes are a convenient brand name as much as a working pop unit. As a commercial move it’s a throw of the dice – a group with nothing to lose. It could have been their last single, and you doubt the label would have been too surprised. Instead it’s their rebirth. But musically it’s a rebirth that swerves dramatically away from their earlier sound, shredding the All-Saints-y chic of the debut LP and embracing producer Richard X’s soundclash aesthetics. “Freak Like Me” buzzes and crunches, sounds deliberately cheap. The lashed-together band are singing a lashed-together song, a cover version of two tracks welded into one with the joins purposely on show. And for those in the know, an extra layer: this contraption is itself a cover of a limited edition track put out by Richard X in his Girls on Top identity, called – how horribly apt – “We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends”.

Component Parts

Start with the foundation, then, released before any of Mutya, Keisha or Heidi were born. I’ve written about Tubeway Army’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” before, marking it too low. “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” is a pilot for the obliquity of early 80s pop, its love of expressionist, unresolvable lyrics. The song is a succession of riddling scenes with its singer’s loneliness the thread you follow. But it’s the music that X borrowed for the chassis of his mash-up: the bass synth riff marching its way round in circles, the treble pushing upward whenever the singer hits a moment of self-realisation (“I don’t think I mean anything to you”) and halts. These moments, in the Tubeway Army song, aren’t climactic: they fall back again into the song’s grind.

By Numan’s own admission, his enigmatic narrative lacked much of a vocal hook. So the topline of “Freak Like Me” comes from sixteen years later, and Adina Howard’s magnificent R&B track. Howard’s “Freak Like Me” rolls along under one of the 90s’ signature sounds – that lovely, high G-Funk whine, a chemtrail ribbon across a summer city sky. The music gives a lazy, friendly glow to a radical song. Howard’s lyric flips George Clinton’s old “dog in me” line to underline that this is a record entirely, explicitly about her desire. There’s no concession to R&B convention: this is not about a specific man, not about how she might spark desire in others, not about romance. “Freak Like Me” is about autonomy, and how autonomy is hot.

(Since I’m mentioning everything else, I’ll mention the marvellous cover by Tru Faith ft. Dub Conspiracy, which would have been fresher in the minds of “Freak Like Me”’s British audience in 2002. It speeds up Anita Howard’s track and transfers it to the silken surrounds of East London clubland at the height of UK Garage. The freakin’ here is, to be honest, a little too brisk and businesslike, but the backing track is a sublime checklist of genre tricks.)

Two songs become one: Richard X’s Girls On Top project put out a four-track EP of mash-ups in time to catch a late-2001 wave of excitement around the idea of ‘bootlegs’, remixed hits which took the vocal line from one track and the backing from another. Most were goofy, gleeful fun, subjecting vocals to Procrustean indignity in the attempt to get them to mash with the backing track. They weren’t a new idea – google “JT and the Big Family” for one originator – but they were having a moment.

Mash-ups were a by-product of an Internet era – sprawling song libraries on MP3, rising download speeds, an industry struggling to catch up with the pace of change and its legal issues. It was the sampledelic 80s replayed as frantic DIY panto. A lot of bootlegs were diverting junk. Some producers tried a little harder. X was one, working his way through a single idea across the Girls On Top EP: cold synth backing, fierce female vocals. “We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends” was its standout.

“You Got Good Taste”

Bootleg pop explicitly remixes history, looks for connections and relationships. It invites you to ask critical questions (it also invites you to dance to them). What do Gary Numan and Adina Howard have in common? What don’t they? What do the Sugababes covering a bootleg add to it?

The first questions, at least, are easy to answer. What both unites and polarises Tubeway Army and Adina Howard are sex and identity. The singer of “Freak Like Me” defines herself by desire, unleashes her desire but is always in control of it. The singer of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” is sick from the loss of control, paranoid and seized by the doubt that even a possibly artificial being could want to be with him. Pushing these two together is a delicious opportunity: Philip K Dick in pursuit of dick.

But an opportunity isn’t a song. To make “We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends” work, Richard X has to play with its structure, turning the mechanical churn of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” into something positive, triumphant even, to match Howard’s proud self-assertion. He chops out the instrumental break between verses in the Numan song, letting Howard’s chorus hooks create variety instead, and turns the song into a march towards a climax, Adina Howard’s cry of “it’s all good to me!”. In her song, this is the cue for a male rapper to step forward as a suitor – Notorious B.I.G., happy for once to be a backing feature. In the reworked and fused track, her shout cues the Tubeway Army music’s soaring treble synth riffs. But here they act not as a failed catharsis, but as ferocious release.

Meanwhile “We Don’t Give A Damn” is collapsing even as it peaks, drowning in fuzz and digital distortion. Richard X doesn’t just fuse tracks, he tampers with them, taking artefacts destined to circulate as lo-fidelity MP3 files and making them sound like it. The audio experience of Girls On Top’s track is deliberately ugly and lossy – its synths corroded and hollowed out.

In 2001, this made the track fit its stylistic moment as well as either of its source songs had. The bare-wires fizz of “We Don’t Give A Damn”, with chunks of riff and keyboard feedback spattered like blobs of solder on the Numan track, locates it alongside another early 00s fad: electroclash.

Bootleg pop was electroclash’s nerdy kid brother. Both musics were club-led, knowingly retro, built on an aesthetic of salvage and novelty. Of course there were huge differences – electroclash was druggier and dressier, and bootlegs were – despite the impeccably po-mo means of creation – generally less caked in irony. Mash-ups were jolly and disposable – as pop, I rather preferred them. But the vibe Girls On Top created was where the two sounds met – making synth classics into a cheap glassy rush, and turning vocal divas cruel and aloof. X’s titles – “Being Nobody”, “I Wanna Dance With Numbers” and “We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends” itself – had a shade of electroclash’s performance-art callousness about them.

For record labels, bootlegs presented a minor dilemma. They had buzz, but were tough to cash in on – the best ones circulated via the online sharing economy or on burned CDs, and clearing any for release would have been a maze of permissions and publishing questions with no guarantee of return. But here was a potential test case. Richard X seemed to be, in the nicest possible way, a pop geek, keen to see what could be done within the machine. The Sugababes were a broken project in need of a relaunch, but one who had never quite hit their commercial potential in the first place. “Freak Like Me” must have looked like an acceptable risk.

Everybody Sing

Part of why I loved “Freak Like Me” so much in 2002 was its context. The two previous number ones, Gareth Gates and Oasis, offered a shabby contrast: pop enslaved by light entertainment, or a rock as a parade of zombie gestures. Confident mediocrity, wherever you looked. “Freak Like Me” was just as much in dialogue with pop’s history, but in a way which felt provocative and lively, not stillborn.

Approaching 30, I projected onto the record my own dreams and fears. A longing for pop as the electric spine of mass culture, for the charts as a bazaar where the underground and mainstream could haggle over ideas. And a dread not just that these moments had never really mattered as much as I wanted them to, but also that once upon a time they had, that older writers were right and the real good times were long past. Like Seth Bingo, I was prepared to throw my puny forearms into the fight, to defend the Babes of Suga.

So I wrote things like this:

“Sugababes I think aren’t just appealing to their old ‘pop’ audience, but have hooked onto a bigger, less obvious market, and have done so not by an appeal to authenticity but by making – or at least breaking – a unhealthily fresh noise. And next? Canny pop producers will have spotted an opportunity, a risk – even if it turns out not to be Sugababes’ to take

I could be entirely wrong. But meanwhile we have “Freak Like Me”, the best single to top the chart for a long time. I’d played the initial Girls on Top bootleg to exhaustion and I wasn’t expecting to fall for the same song twice – but I did, and it’s still maybe every tenth tune I play. Great number ones are rare too.

I bought the single before I took the bus back to Oxford last Monday morning. Every time the song hit its climax – “It’s all good for ME!” – I looked out the window and saw houses, tower blocks, shopping centers, and imagined the same song playing on the radios in them all. That feeling of community, the idea that I can have something glorious in common with people I’ve never met, is an illusion, maybe, but it’s one of the best feelings I know – it shapes what I write, what I listen to, how I vote.”

But that tells you more about me and my fantasies (of pop, of culture, of not working at a shitty start-up and feeling lonely all the time) than it does about the Sugababes record, how it sounds and feels. It keeps the structure of “We Don’t Give A Damn” – rearranging the song so it turns on that peak – but scrubs the bootleg down, scraping off the gunk and fuzz without making the track too glossy. What emerges from the clean-up is a strange, novel mix of glam, electro and R&B.

As we know now, this single is a freak itself – a track that revived a career while sounding very little like what came before or after it. The evolved Sugababes find their sound on their next Number One; Richard X moves on to a string of quixotic and brilliant near-misses. Bootleg pop becomes a footnote. In the band’s story, “Freak Like Me” is both crucial and a strange chrysalis phase.

You can get an idea of where “Freak” sits at angles to the group’s later sound by hearing the bonus version on their Overloaded singles collection – the “Maida Vale session”, performed live. Here the song is thoroughly de-X-ified, the grimy pulse of the Tubeway Army synth line turned into a rock backing track with occasional keyboard stabs. And the band rush the ending, going straight back into the chorus after “good for me”. It highlights something important about the single – how much in tension the Sugababes and the sound are. On their earlier and later records, the group and their vocal interplay are the focus. On “Freak Like Me”, there’s less room for harmonising: the song and the singers are a dam built against the backing’s electronic flood. At the end, it breaks.

But what makes this single so thrilling is that it’s the singers who break the dam themselves, who resolve the tension with that cry of “ME!”. It turns Adina Howard’s record from a song about the no-shit assumption of autonomy to a song about the rush of discovering and claiming it. That’s the element which lets “Freak Like Me” build as high as the records that forged it.

babes of suga

After The Disco

Seth Bingo’s punch, arsehole move or not, is a great Phonogram moment. But it’s not the story. That happens seven years later, and the older events are the great and stupid deeds the cast is living with, and living down. By then, in the real world, the Babes of Suga had become what they might have been if “Freak Like Me” had gone wrong: an embarrassing shell of a group. And the moment they had thrived in sat suddenly on the other side of a historical and economic fissure.

When you think about a historical moment, like the early 00s, you can’t help but underlay it with hindsight: the concerns and consequences of your own time are the backing track on which your recreation of an era rests. To write historically is to create mash-ups. Hindsight gives arbitrary associations sudden weight. A YouTube upload of Richard X’s “We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends” plays out to a still picture of Viv “Spend, Spend, Spend” Nicholson, mad-eyed and clutching her Pools-winning cheque. It’s so striking I wondered if it had been used by X himself, but no. Still, it was a shrewd and poetic choice, finding a link between desperate profligacy and the pick’n’mix excess of the bootleg boomlet.

From the vantage point of 2017, let alone 2009, 2002 seems like a champagne glass of bubbles: the madness of the credit boom, the New Labour liberal consensus it paid for, but also the CD era itself, and even the sense of the Internet as something whose creative force was essentially benign. The point of a bubble – in the metaphoric sense – is that it’s artificial but that its artifice is hard to detect: it feels natural when you’re in one, at least until it’s just about to burst. Then burst it does, and you see it was never natural at all. Where does that leave the pop music which emerged from that time?

One temptation might be to walk away, to give up on 00s pop as an enchantment that failed, the froth of a delusional culture. After all, Phonogram isn’t a story about turning pop into magic, it’s a story about when and how to stop doing that.

But that’s never been how pop or history works, for me. If the 00s looks like a decadent era right now then its pop reflects that as much as it reflected the hope and greed people felt in its urgent present. The pop music that for me still seems most resonant from that time is pop where the artifice breaks through the skin, where no real attempt is made to maintain a facade of naturalism. Pop like “Freak Like Me”, a Frankenstein of patchwork ideas and broken friendships, unease in its bones, shouting its life at the world anyhow.



  1. 1
    Muck on 10 Jul 2017 #

    Bravo…just….bravo. Glorious tune and you’ve done it justice.

  2. 2
    Tommy Mack on 10 Jul 2017 #

    Couldn’t be anything other than a 10 could it? (I was initially afraid you might have some personal gripe that bump it down to an 8 or something!)

    I’d always misread the history of the track, assuming that X mashed up a flop Sugababes single with Numan and the label recorded their own version once it became a clubland hit.

    We got their debut album at our student radio station, the press release made a LOT of the fact they wrote and produced their own stuff. We all thought it was pleasant but not revelatory (none of us were really pop or RnB fans though) They seemed to disappear only to come barrelling back with this. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like this record.

    A wonderful piece of writing btw.

  3. 3
    Matthew Marcus on 10 Jul 2017 #

    I don’t think I’d ever heard this before (I know, I know, I say these things to annoy, because I know it teases) but it is rather good, as anything underpinned by Gary Numan was bound to be really, to my ears… Off for a second listen!

  4. 4
    Cumbrian on 10 Jul 2017 #

    Tremendous. Both the track and the writing about it. I’ve been thinking about this track for months – since The Hindu Times review – and have never really been able to order my thoughts coherently enough to write anything about it effectively. Hopefully, some others will be along to return serve – might be difficult though. This is (an) Ace.

    On a more prosaic note, did anyone else get a timed redirect to some other site whilst reading this? Happened to me twice – to something called dbsleak.com or something similar. Just me or is something more sinister happening?

  5. 5
    thefatgit on 10 Jul 2017 #

    That was worth the wait! Thanks Tom. And a 10 to boot, gets no arguments from me. The highlight of a moribund year in [Popular] pop, but this would have been the highlight of any year in the Noughties, IMVHO.

  6. 6
    admin on 10 Jul 2017 #

    sinister-ish. i think i’ve purged that now, but looking out for more of that. thanks!

  7. 7
    AMZ1981 on 10 Jul 2017 #

    Welcome back!

    I’m afraid I might have to be the first dissenting opinion on Freak Like Me. It would have been an 8 at the time but unfortunately it has been downgraded to a 6 in the fifteen years since. Some of this is perhaps due to the wider career context of the Sugababes; they have bettered this although they also managed much worse. However another factor is that I did approach this and the source material backwards. In 2002 I hadn’t heard Are Friends Electric and wouldn’t do until I embraced Itunes and youtube a decade later. Essentially I consider Are Friends … the superior track, largely because Anita Howard’s lyric does nothing for me but at the same time the whole point about Freak Like Me is viewing the two songs from the right end of the telescope.

    That said, there is another problem with Freak Like Me that the next Sugababes bunny shares with it, namely that I simply can’t bring myself to remember either as fondly as I feel I should. Summer 2002 marked the start of a big leap forward in my life and the Sugababes (among others) soundtracked it but somehow the emotional connection isn’t there.

  8. 8
    weej on 10 Jul 2017 #

    Welcome back, Tom, missed this blog of late. Very enjoyable read, but afraid I’ll join AMZ1981 on the dissenting side, though for slightly different reasons. The first is musical, a problem common to a lot of mashup-derived material, especially when one whole song is laid on top of another – one bit gels, then another bit just doesn’t quite. In this case the perfectly nice chorus sounds dull next to the excellent verses, and yes, great when the riff kicks in after, but still the “freak in the morning, freak in the evening” bit feels like its sort of selotaped onto the rest of the song. The second reason is just a feeling – one I’m ready to reconsider, I should add. There is just something about these lyrics coming out of these girls mouths which feels kind of exploitative and wrong. Not in a “women can’t have a libido” kind of way, just that I don’t buy it, it feels like they’ve been told to sing about this, they know it sells, and they are going along with it. TBH this is my problem with a lot of British pop of the 2000s, but particularly here it stops me enjoying the track.

  9. 9
    Todd on 11 Jul 2017 #

    I too have intense memories of the Great Pop Migration of 2002 — the delirious joy of no longer having to pretend that I liked funkless hipster music and was free to listen to music that wasn’t cool. Of course this soon curdled into its own new brand of hipster rules, as those comic panels will attest, and “Freak Like Me” doesn’t hold the thrill for me it did in 2002. This might be because I’m now much more familiar with the original; I will back up Weej on this one, the girls just don’t sell it, certainly not like Adina does. (Part of me also wonders if the Gary Numan sample had a — ughhhghhhh — rockist appeal that helped it cross over.)

  10. 10
    lonepilgrim on 11 Jul 2017 #

    being of a certain age I recognised the Numan song but, like Tommy, I assumed that the vocal was an original tune that had been retrofitted to the earlier track. I’ve now listened to the Adina Howard original for the first time and like it. Nevertheless the edited, churning ‘Are Friends Electric’ sample turns this into an unstoppable juggernaut. That has its pros and cons IMO. If this popped up on the dance floor it would be wonderful. Hearing it unexpectedly on the radio – fantastic. Wanting to listen to it again and again. Not so much. 8 from me.

  11. 11
    Matt DC on 11 Jul 2017 #

    The early 00s pop boom had been going on for a while but other than the occasional Destiny’s Child song this is the first time the #1 spot really reflects that, but there’s a lot of magic to come over the next few years. The Sugababes themselves will spend more of the decade at #1 than anyone else – and I bet that if you asked that in a pub quiz now, hardly anyone would guess correctly.

  12. 12
    James BC on 11 Jul 2017 #

    I don’t like this, I’m afraid. I’m not keen on Numan’s dreary grind and I find the vocal weak and uninterested. Not for me. It’s weird because I like other material by both the group and the producer (though not by Gary Numan and his freaky dystopian future that we all find so mind-blowingly cool).

    In my opinion it does the Sugababes a disservice to hold this up as their best song, or even one of their best songs, since the idea predated them and X could have got more or less any group or vocalist to do it with a similar result. Many later singles are much better and much more them.

  13. 13
    flahr on 11 Jul 2017 #

    I was too young then, it’s too late now. Ho-hum. [7]

    In fact I don’t think I’d heard it (though I knew of its theoretical basis) until university – I was playing “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” aloud in a communal space (how antisocial) and someone asked if it was the song sampled in this, so I put it on to illustrate. Tom is spot on about the genius of moving the second melody to the end where it serves as cathartic release; I also agree with weej that, while the rickety mismatch is part of the pleasure of This Sort Of Thing, there are areas where the mashup swerves a little too far from gelling – in particular, the “I’ve got a freaky secret everybody sing / ‘Cause we don’t give a damn about a thing” couplet carries an aura of “oh shit this doesn’t work, just staccato it out quickly and hope no one notices” for me. Whereas “Being Nobody” (are we allowed to talk about that here?) is glorious to these ears the whole way through, wish we could have had that instead (well, alright, not instead, in addition to).

    I was going to mention one of their other singles, possibly my favourite Sbabes song, on the assumption that given how shoddy (in a good way) it sounds it must have been one of their early minor hits; however it is still to come (not bunnied though) so I’ll leave it.

    It’s a bit of a shame that we’re now entering an era where the critical consensus is already settled, but that was always encoded in the Popular project I suppose.

  14. 14
    ThePensmith on 11 Jul 2017 #

    Excellent thesis Tom. Even my own review of ‘Freak…’ for my 00s girl group top 40 review column on Buzzjack about two years ago – which this here corner of the web takes its inspiration from – can’t hold a candle to your deconstruction.

    This is also a 10 for me. Why? As you’ve touched on so eloquently, it broke so many barriers down in terms of pop music and how it was viewed by the wider public, and for me, certainly across the first two incarnations of their lineup, the Sugababes broke down the barn door for pop acts to cross over and have a more universal appeal than ever before, simply by releasing singles and albums of such a high quality, which particularly at the start of the 00s was in short supply.

    It’s easy to forget now, with all the personnel dramas that were to follow them like a bad smell, but they were the first ever girl group to win a Q Award for Best Single with this – Gary Numan presented them with their trophy I recall – and then a year on from this they were the first girl group to appear on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury. There are numerous performers of pop centred bunnies to come in the next 15 years that crossed the same path as them (hell even some before who didn’t reach the same heights. All Saints, for instance), who I feel owe it all to them for changing things and shifting people’s perceptions of what good music was, be it pop, R&B or otherwise.

    #2 watch: the first of three runners up appearances in 2002 began here for S Club Juniors, whose ‘One Step Closer’ was but a mere 1000 copies off debuting at the top. As fine an addition as any to sit alongside their senior counterparts’ catalogue of hits, and if it’d come out the week before it’d have seen off Oasis, but it just obviously came up against a much stronger record, although it held its #2 berth the following week whilst the next bunny toppled Sugababes.

  15. 15
    JLucas on 12 Jul 2017 #

    Huzzah! I’d just about given this up for dead.

    Freak Like Me is a special record for me. Back in 2000, I was witnessing the sad disintegration of my childhood pop icons The Spice Girls, and the One Touch album proved to be an important transition record for me into a more sophisticated and introspective style of pop music.

    You can imagine how I felt when, once again, the abrupt departure of the central redhead seemed to bring about the untimely demise of the group. However, in time the Sugababes would prove to be the anti-Spice Girls in the sense that no member of the group was irreplaceable. Not to skip ahead, but it’s worth noting that by the end of their run they didn’t have a single founding member remaining.

    They never actually made a better record than One Touch to my mind – or a better single than Overload, which would have made for a fabulous Popular entry. But Freak Like Me was a thrilling return. For one thing, after they lost their de facto lead singer and record deal, I never expected them to come back at all. The pop climate in 2002 was harsh and unforgiving, second acts were the exception rather than the rule. Also, this was still largely a pre-social media era. I don’t recall picking up on any advance buzz until the video for Freak Like Me dropped.

    What a video it was, too. They were perceived as very trendy in the One Touch era, but there was also an awkwardness and a diffidence to them, which was now replaced by confidence and aggressive sexuality. The vampire theme was very of the moment and a perfect way to introduce Heidi as the new member of the group. Song-wise, it contained enough familiar elements mixed up in new enough ways (this being – as Tom notes – before mash up records really became ubiquitous) to feel like an instant classic.

    It remains the only record I’ve ever skipped school to buy. I remember sitting in my bedroom playing the CD single on a loop. When it went to #1 I was thrilled. I followed their career from this point on, and enjoyed a lot of what came after. But I never loved them quite this much again. It was, to coin a phrase from a far less significant chart topper, a perfect moment in pop.


  16. 16
    EPG on 12 Jul 2017 #

    This was about where I came into listening to pop music for the second time. The first time was during the dominance of dance tracks, at the age when you are too young to know that music changes every few years. Even by ’02, I had no clue who Gary Numan was or that he played a role here. This track’s good, and more people should record tracks like it. It’s just not as good as “”Friends””. Maybe 8 or 9, bearing in mind I’d give a 10 for Gary. But unlike Gary, Sugababes got me into the market for pop music with their big songs of 2002, just like a different female performer later in the year. Each in their way made overtures to the rock audience, as writers above noted in the case of Sugababes. Young male pop-sceptics, raised to look askance at Britney, were helped along by that inclusivity. As also alluded to above, many guys furthermore liked them for other reasons.

    Fifteen years is a funny little interval. Everything still looks a bit current but right-angled after half a generation. We know who has ended up toppest of the poppest today and it looks a lot more like a pop version of Indie Dave than the babes (or Gary). I think it’s because the modern world and the Internet make kids sad, and they want music for sadness.

    We also know that, if this inclusivity increased the audience for pop music, it didn’t show up in the market at all, and the British music industry’s pipeline went a bit dry until the top guys worked out how to make Internet money. Watch the charts go by for the next few years as if they were cars: Look, there goes a TV star. There go the last few dance artists I remember from my friends’ Euphoria CDs. There’s a US import. And another. After all, it’s 2002 so we have music industry globalisation, which devalues the charts’ parochial importance in British and even European culture. Most of my school – white small-town or rural people – were listening to hip-hop or rap. Doubt that would have happened before Eminem. Anyway, they weren’t buying Sugababes.

    This is a great project. It was a pleasure to tease out its intellectual or ideological standpoint from the posts and the comments. I worked out, more or less, the position that would be taken on this song, and that it would be an apotheosis of the blog, but it’s the writing that’s the pleasure to read.

    On that note: I do think the local approach to artifice and play here is very identifiable as being in the English cultural tradition, at least at the elite level of the ancient universities and the London salons. Sugababes and Richard X are in line with that. It’s clear what they are doing. The English praise artifice, but only when you are honest about it and not actually trying to live it out, because they do not want to be fooled. Don’t get too clever or else you end up denigrated like poor Phil Collins! Or Bowie, fifteen years ago – now THAT was some reputational turnaround.

  17. 17
    Lee Saunders on 12 Jul 2017 #

    Wow, waited months and then I missed most of the fun ha. Excellent review, glad to see your love for it is still as strong all these years later, and definitely a 10 from me too. A more than stellar ending to the “Numan revival trilogy” of early 00s pop (that also includes Armand van Helen’s rather silly Koochy and Basement Jaxx’s wonderful Where’s Your Head At), while the birth of something much bigger.

  18. 18
    Kinitawowi on 12 Jul 2017 #

    I realised a few months ago that you’d be giving this a ten (there was a hint that one was coming a year or so back); then there was that thought mid-review that said “nah, he’s going to nine out”, and then it landed.

    A worthy behemoth of a review for a song I just can’t get behind, though. Obviously ditching band members and replacing them with other people is surely a thing that had been going on for a while, but rarely so publicly and with so much acrimony as the uncermonious bullying-out of what felt like the Sugababes’ strongest link; you mentioned Ghosts already, but Siobhan Donaghy’s Revolution In Me was a stunning album.

    So shoving her out, bringing in somebody else (an ex-Atomic Kitten no less!) and changing to a whole new sound with a hip new producer, mashing together two superior songs with scarcely an ounce of creativity? It reeked. It reeked of “product”. Mashed up bands and mashed up songs, recompiled and repackaged for a better sell; for better or worse, the trend for the next few years. (Look at what it shares Now! 52 disc space with; Like A Prayer by Mad’House, a band inspired by a Madonna and Black Legend mashup; Scooter’s take on Supertramp; Intenso Project relying on 10cc – and that’s just disc 1!)

    And what of this particular product? Well, it’s more interesting than I first gave it credit for, I’ll cop to that; there’s something to be said for making something so expansive out of something as constrained as Are Friends Electric, a song that always wanted to break out of its own claustrophobia but never managed it. But it still never manages to break free from its superior parts.


  19. 20
    Cumbrian on 12 Jul 2017 #

    “Obviously ditching band members and replacing them with other people is surely a thing that had been going on for a while, but rarely so publicly and with so much acrimony as the uncermonious bullying-out”

    Beyonce says hi.

  20. 21
    ThePensmith on 12 Jul 2017 #

    #18 – I have both the Siobhan Donaghy albums, although interestingly ‘Revolution In Me’ has earned more spins on my iTunes library than ‘Ghosts’. May possibly be because it took me until five years ago to purchase a second hand copy of the latter (I only had ‘Don’t Give It Up’ and ’12 Bar Acid Blues’ on my iTunes prior to that). But some truly wonderful stuff on that first album. Particularly ‘Iodine’ and ‘Nothing But Song’.

  21. 22
    Phil on 12 Jul 2017 #

    I bought Replicas when it came out, so I really ought to have hated this. Don’t though. Having listened to all the precursor tracks, what I find really interesting about this record is that it sounds better than any of them – richer and weirder, smoother and scuzzier, more enveloping and more glitchy. None of the singers can hold a candle to Adina Howard – and it’s a shame they didn’t work harder on making that “Good! For! ME!” cut through – but in the scheme of things that’s a minor problem. 9, but a good 9. (But what the hell is going on in the video?)

  22. 23
    Phil on 12 Jul 2017 #

    Meant to say, there’s something distinctly other-worldly (or altered-state-y) about the Girls on Top track – a real sense of a ‘journey into sound’, destination unknown – and that’s one of the things that still works in the Sugababes version. (At this point I resist the temptation to sneak in drug references, particularly since they’d be references to drugs I haven’t even used.) Getting something like that into the charts, let alone to number 1 – respect.

  23. 24
    Lee Saunders on 13 Jul 2017 #

    Another thing I love about Freak Like Me is the other things X added to the backdrop. A few seconds of beeping that occur throughout the song, sporadic whooshing, and so on. They’re all very subtle but all very effective. The somehow more effervescent version on X’s album that’s much more similar to the Girls on Top track is no different in this respect, and where the chorus doesn’t return until fade out are other little noises, a brief drone, a few seconds of lowly mixed vocals. Its the little touches like these that, inadvertently or not, point more towards what Sugababes tracks were like after this.

  24. 25
    Holiday Kirk on 13 Jul 2017 #

    pls don’t make us wait like that next time ;_;

  25. 26
    Billy Hicks on 15 Jul 2017 #

    Actually punched the air in triumph when I saw that 10 at the end.

    Aged 13, I knew nothing about Gary Numan and this was my introduction to the Sugababes, having missed Overload at the time. I just saw it as one of the most modern, most futuristic pop songs I’d ever heard (yep, I’m aware of the irony of that), and my main memory of it is browsing Dixons Brent Cross that summer, gazing in wonder at all the DVD players, widescreen TV and Windows XP PCs that our household didn’t yet have. While primitive to today’s smartphone/tablet world, it felt like there was nothing else left that was yet to be invented – the future had, most definitely, arrived.

    Circa 2008, I remember seeing both this track and a Christmas ’02 bunny as defining the sound of noughties pop to the point where both could have come out at the end of the decade and still sound fresh.

  26. 27
    punctum on 18 Jul 2017 #

    At the time of “Freak Like Me,” the bootleg craze had yet to reach the basements of nostalgia, ironic or otherwise. No “comedians” turned up on Channel 4, reminiscing or being instructed to reminisce about squeezing themselves into tiny clubs just off Tottenham Court Road to watch a series of hopefuls attempting to mash up Russ Abbot with Throbbing Gristle, or more prosaically that day’s latest variation on “Get Ur Freak On,” and wondering what that was all about, eh, and indeed, eh. It never happened.

    Yet, as with everything, the idea, if not the actual physical practice, of bootlegging seamlessly seeped into the pop mainstream. Revisiting Richard X’s 2003 album Richard X Presents The X-Factor – an album which might have caused a sensation had it been released eighteen months earlier, or three years later – one is reminded that future pop stars like Mark Ronson must have been paying close attention.

    “We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends” was the original Girls On Top seven-inch mashing of Numan’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” and Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me” and at the time I publicly regretted several key factors omitted from the Sugababes record, notably the Cramps-sampled intro, the extraordinary double explosion (which may or may not have been sampled from the Twin Towers) which comes after the line “There’s just one thing that a man must do” and the general messiness and noisiness of the intentionally blurred Girls On Top outline.

    In addition, the “sanctioned” main mix of “Freak Like Me” initially seemed to me intent on burying all the noise and unrest – and to an extent even Tubeway Army – in the distant background. But the “We Don’t Give A Damn” mix, despite missing the above components, has endured as a pop record and represented not just an important comeback for the Sugababes, having lost a member and been dropped by London Records the previous year after their debut album failed to go triple platinum, but also a rebirth and justification of New Pop; I grasped it like an oxygen cylinder.

    The Sugababes materialise as virtual replicants out of the murky mist of squashed synths and etiolated bleeps with a confident collective vocal (one body divided by three prisms of variant light) which actually mirrors the kind of dialogue such a visitor might have conducted with Numan’s original protagonist (“I’ve got a freaky secret,” “I’m packing all the things that you need”). The Eno oscillating wolf whistle after the first “satisfy me” remains intact, as does the cumulative piling up of indistinct signals and generator howls at the end (signalled by the starting pistol of the last, anguished “Good for me-e-EE!”) over which the girls sing 31st century cabaret, complete with handclaps. In truth, it was an astounding comeback, and I regret that its greatness may be belittled by some of the above minor provisos; after months of polite young boys, here were the girls injecting much-needed cortisone into the hardening arteries of British pop, and it felt as though both the Sugababes and “we” had won. It would have towered even in 1982; in 2002 it was a colossus of sneaky promise. 8

  27. 28
    mapman132 on 19 Jul 2017 #

    I started to skip ahead on the bunnies list near the end of last summer (I’m at the beginning of 2014 right now), so I first heard this about 10 months ago. While Popular – and Freaky Trigger in general – has inspired a diverse array of MP3 purchases by me – everything from Lieutenant Pigeon to Kero Kero Bonito – there are only two tracks that I downloaded within moments of my first listen. “Pure Shores” was one. “Freak Like Me” was the other one.

    I had a feeling this would be an epic review and Tom did not disappoint. Great review. Great record. 10.

  28. 29
    timbo on 22 Jul 2017 #

    This was a totally thrilling comeback – and totally unexpected. I loved “Overload” and a couple of other earlier singles (Run for Cover). But I’d assumed they were dead and buried, especially as (as mentioned) they seemed to be an All Saints facsimile. (Incidentally, it was pretty obvious that – around this time – Blue seemed to be created to be the male All Saints, but without any of the tunes). Maybe it was a bit of a last throw of the dice, but Richard X was great at creating these big, grinding, electro-clashy records (see Rachel Stevens “Some Girls’). And this took the 2 Many DJ’s mash-up obsession to the mainstream.
    Was going to say they didn’t really better this….with the possible exception of a bunnyable ttrack from 2005.
    So…a great British girl group in 2002…..pre-staging THE great British girl group emerging at the end of the year…..

  29. 30
    Girl with Curious Hair on 18 Aug 2017 #

    That’s a really good review of a song that, if I’m honest, I remember very little of. But I do like it when somebody makes a strong case for a song I’d neglected.

    I was at a very different point in life to Tom and, I think, quite a few of the other posters here. Something of a counterpoint to #26, and Billy’s end of history feeling in Brent Cross Dixons: when you’re about 11 years old, history barely registers at all: everything around you exists Just Because, and the past is something totally disconnected.

    Which is a long-winded way of saying that I didn’t know of, and wouldn’t have cared about, the context of FLM, nor the history of its components. I was eleven, only just turned, and I was growing up as a pre-teen in a period when the charts seemed geared towards pre-teens more than ever. I could afford to be picky, and in my youthful naivety the Sugababes felt like another girl-band in a pleasantly stuffed landscape.

    So yeah, my feeling about this song is one of missed connections. I was too young for the sex. (But now I think about it, I think sex is a hard sell in any girl/boy-band set-up: too many voices, too much harmony, not enough friction or wild-eyed nastiness. I’m struggling to think of any boy/girl-band song that really sold sex, with the exception of Blackstreet and No Diggity. Answers on a postcard please.)

    I kinda missed out on the champagne-flute years of the early 2000s too: the credit crunch didn’t happen until 2008, it’s true, but Tom’s comments about the nature of bubbles ring especially true here.

    So listening back to this now, trying to take some of this context and history on my shoulders… I know I’ve said sex is a hard sell in this kind of set-up, and I stand by that, but the song does indeed peak on “good for ME!”, when the Babes manage break out of that 2-chord pattern that’s dominated the song. There’s your tension and release right there.

    Sadly, though, that makes the song something of a one trick pony for me: it’s all in that moment of ecstatic release. All that rocking back and forth to get there, it feels like a simple means to an end, and surely that’s not quite right?

    Actually, that paragraph reads harsher than I want it to. This is a solid 7/10 for me: it’s well-built, and from good parts too, and my ability to catch all the magic you guys do appears to be more my problem than the song’s. There are some parties you just can’t afford to be late to, I guess.

  30. 31
    flahr on 20 Aug 2017 #

    “There are some parties you just can’t afford to be late to, I guess.” QFT

    A minor Very Important point which I don’t think has been mentioned yet: the intro is the ‘coin insert’ sound effect from classic 1981 arcade game Frogger. A not inconsiderable number of previous ‘hits’ had included samples from video games (“Lemmings”, SFX, #51 in May 93; “Tetris”, Dr Spin, #6 in Oct 92; “Supermarioland”, Ambassadors of Funk, #10 in Oct 92; “SuperSonic”, H.W.A., #33 in Dec 92) but always as the main overt gimmick of a track as pointed up in the title – though the thrill of recognition is certainly an intended bonus I don’t think “Freak Like Me” expects recognition, and I feel this marks another important step in the aestheticisation of video game sound in pop music, especially inside the same twelve months as “21 Seconds” indicated the cues from game sound that grime would go on to mine and flaunt. (Contemporary video game music, of course, was [and had been for some time] often conspicuously failing to return the favour and instead trying to sound as non-electronic as possible by imitating/drawing inspiration from Western art music, now it had the technical capacity to do so*; so it is that Grant Kirkland currently finds himself nestling next to Saint-Saens and Prokofiev in the Classic FM Hall of Fame.)

    *Manic Miner perhaps demonstrating why waiting until it had the technical capacity to do so was necessary :-(

  31. 32
    flahr on 20 Aug 2017 #


  32. 33
    Ben Wainless on 22 Jan 2021 #

    As someone who didn’t become a fully-fledged poptimist until a few years afterwards, but loved ‘Freak Like Me’ with a fierce passion from the moment I first saw it on Q Music TV, thank you. Absolutely fascinating review which validates all my initial instincts about this wondrous little moment in popular culture.

    I’ve given this some thought and I honestly believe Freak Like Me is the greatest UK no.1 single by an all-British act in the last 30 years. The most recent such no.1 I might put above it is ‘Killer’. It just has everything that makes pop imperishable: multi-cultural influences, creativity through borrowing/stealing/repurposing, sexual tension, appeal to women, danceability. I remember celebrating when it got to the top, and being thrilled at the critical response (I believe Q magazine made it their single of the year for instance). It remains my favourite British single since ‘Born Slippy’.

    10, obviously.

    From a relative newbie to this site and the People’s Pop polls on Twitter.

  33. 34
    benson_79 on 15 May 2021 #

    A 10 for “it’s all good for me!” and those euphoric synths alone. Pure joy. I wish it could go on forever.

  34. 35
    Gareth Parker on 24 May 2021 #

    Great song and good use of Numan in my view, but not keen on the vocals on this track. Would rather listen to Adina, I have to say. 5/10.

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