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.

Score: 10

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