Tag Archives: Music

Great Forgotten Pop Songs: Ruslana – Wild Dances

For a recent great forgotten pop song, I shared my love of Scandipop. Now, I’m going to spread the love in a distinctly Slavic direction.

Ruslana’s Wild Dances won the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest (and an eternal place in my heart and hard drive) with one of the highest point totals of all-time, whilst Terry Wogan tutted on-high, branding her Xena: Warrior Princess. Lucy Lawless wishes!

Ruslana exudes fierceness. And no, we’re not talking the sexy-scowly wild-eyed fierceness that Tyra and her minions specialise in, yet a total ferocity where you wouldn’t be surprised to see her tear a man into mincemeat before busting out a nifty little dance routine atop his carcass and finishing things off with a howl of a top-note. And he’d still come back begging for more.

Wild Dances pounds with raw energy and near-tribal rhythms, complete with a drumming section from the lady herself. Factor in an ear-pricking attention-grabbing horn intro, skimpy leather costumes complete with bits of animal hanging off them and a tune so feral it demands to be stomped along to, it’s a unique hunk of Ukranian pop greatness. And frankly, you can’t argue with lyrics like ‘Day-na-day-na wanna be loved’, can you?

This was one of the first Eurovision winners to be sung partly in the country’s own language, which makes it even better for someone listening with an English-only ear. The best way to whip yourself into a Ruslana-shaped frenzy is to grunt suitably primal noises along to the Ukranian lyrics, making you really believe you’re participating in some sort of ritualistic chant. I also can’t resist beating something along with the rhythm – be it my seat, my chest or my flabby thighs – which has drawn a few strange looks on public transport. I believe that when most critics describe a song as air-punching, they mean it in a purely figurative sense; nevertheless, I find it becomes a fist-clenching reality as the shouting ‘Hey!’s of Wild Dances always propel me to aim my best right hooks skywards.

At the end of the day though, Wild Dances does exactly what it says on the tin. If it came along sounding all meek and mild, or even if it socked it to you with an immaculately-produced Dr Luke/Max Martin hook, it just wouldn’t feel right. As it is, Ruslana’s throaty efforts ensure that it’s three minutes of stomping staggering and downright bonkers pop dynamite. And it’s badass enough to be featured on Grand Theft Auto IV. Go! Go! Go! Wild dancers!

UK Chart Peak: 47
Key lyric: ‘Go! Go! Go! Wild dancers!’
Get more bonkers Slavic pop: I really don’t know anymore. Just stick Ruslana on repeat. It works for me.

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Great Forgotten Pop Songs: Dolly Rockers – How Did I End Up With You

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all the best pop songs sound even better with a helping of sadness on the side. Ever since Abba churned out tracks with melodies that dreams were made of but lyrics the stuff of domestic nightmares, it’s a quixotic blend that has been used to turn a good song into something more. The next GREAT FORGOTTEN POP SONG OF OUR TIMES has this Special Brew in spades.

Strictly speaking, How Did I End Up With You by The Dolly Rockers is not completely dead, buried and tucked away in the recesses of an amnesiac’s mind just yet. Despite the obligatory girl-group member shuffle, a slanging match with the sadly more successful Saturdays and a single that set the charts on fire with about as much success as an arsonist touting only a birthday candle, the Dolly Rockers continue to stumble on and could still make it big. By God, they deserve it as they already have more great unreleased tracks in their ‘No’ pile than some acts have managed in a whole career. But none come more great than How Did I End Up With You.

The Dolly Rockers are a band you instantly love or hate. With their glitzy jumble-sale style, make-up that you’re unlikely to mistake for an au naturel look and a general air of shambolic charm, you could be forgiven for thinking they were a bunch of tarted-up skanks one short skirt away from the street corner. But then their lyrics (self-penned) bitch-slap you out of such blasphemy – mocking the very people they appear to be, with talk of ‘stick-on nails and plastic hair’, ‘fake tits’ and boys ‘in love with their own reflection’ – all sung in a mesh of wildly-differing accents. It’s a madcap collision between the Spice Girls’ chemistry, Bananarama’s attitude, Lily Allen’s wit and Blur’s tunes that should end in complete chaos but somehow works. Well, for me, anyway. I bloody loved them – they were exciting, had masses of the untamed raw energy that record companies delight in processing out of their acts and were the perfect antidote to the anodyne that I’d been looking for. Basically, I was willing to give up my heart to a girl group for the first time properly since The Spice Girls.

Of course, my devotion proved to be the kiss of the death – their first and only single, Gold Digger, failed to dent the top 40 and nothing else has been released since. But How Did I End Up With You fully deserved to be the track that transcended whatever doubts you may have had about their image/singing ability/overuse of eyeliner; a platinum-plated gem tucked away on their album sampler that should have been their crowning moment, marking their ascendancy to girl group royalty. Splicing melodies and lyrics from Propaganda’s 80s hit Duel and 3OH3!’s Don’t Trust Me, together with an anthemic explosion of a chorus that sounds like Kelly Clarkson in her pomp, it’s a whooshing sherbet rush of pop excellence.

This, on its own, would have been enough. But lo and behold, enter that Special Brew I was banging on about for the whole of the first paragraph, and How Did I End Up With You becomes something more. Quite frankly, you don’t expect lyrics this bleak from a trio whose main strength lies in their self-styled brand of  ‘Drunk Disco’. Nor do you expect something as overt as ‘Why do I have a thing for married men?’ to crop up in a band with their über-kohled eyes trained on the Top 40. It details a relationship gone bad, but one which you just can’t bear to get out of, with just enough hints of domestic abuse (‘The diamonds are fly/He gave me a bruiser; Blow by blow, the passion dies’) to make it knowingly uncomfortable without sounding like a charity record for a women’s refuge.

Whilst most pop songs are content to tread the same shallows over and over again for their Etch-a-Sketch observations about relationships, How Did I End Up With You tackles an unusual but very recognisable hopeless state of limbo – ‘It’s hit or miss, but should I cry/Or keep it real, and hope he stays?’ There’s an air of resigned desperation to the whole thing, as even the rallying chorus of realisation (‘How did I end up with you? How did I ever see a perfect ten?’) ends with the melancholy shrug of ‘No big surprise’.

For the tune alone, it’s already a shooting star shimmering its way across the horizon of mediocre pop songs; factor in the lyrics and it becomes a veritable meteor shower blazing up the entire sky. And all from a bunch of X-Factor rejects? Pop truly does move in mysterious ways.

UK Chart Peak: Unreleased
Key lyrics: ‘How did I end up with you? I’ll never make the same mistake again… How did I ever see a perfect ten?’; ‘The devil’s smiling at this hopeless case’
Get more girl groups with attitude: Shampoo, Kenickie, Bananarama, The Spice Girls

Great Forgotten Pop Songs: A*Teens – Closer To Perfection

It was only a matter of time before Great Forgotten Pop Songs took on a distinctly Nordic air. Scandipop is one of my great music loves – so much so I dedicated a whole unloved month to it at Teentoday. Why? Those sneaky Scandinavians simply do pop better than everyone else and have been doing so ever since Abba Waterloo-ed their way to Eurovision victory in the 70s. Prime example – Closer To Perfection by The A*Teens.

For most acts, Closer To Perfection would be the jewel in their crown, the ace in their pack, the Berry in their Glee Club. For a Scandipop act, it was mere album filler. A glittering gem on their New Arrival album, Closer To Perfection holds the distinction of not only being a great forgotten pop song of our time but also one of my all-time favourites.

The A*Teens started life as a rather dubious Abba covers act, putting an eletro sheen on classic tunes to re-sell them to a whole new teenybopper market who found Marie/Sara/Dani/Amit attractive. Abba songs are so timelessly perfect that all covers of them lie on a scale somewhere between ‘unnecessary’ and ‘blasphemous’ so I don’t think I need waste much time on the group’s earliest incarnation. America actually thought they were various Abba members’ offspring, which just about tells you everything you need to know about their early marketing (and about America).

Having realised Abba covers weren’t a viable prospect for longevity in a pop group, someone decided that the A*Teens should start recording original songs. Hand that someone a biscuit and make it a caramel chocolate digestive because from then on, it was one pop glory after another. Fronting sunny, fresh and damn catchy tracks like Floorfiller, For All That I Am and Halfway Around The World (and I make no apologies if said tunes crop up on this series at a later date), A*Teens were ready to take their place amongst Sweden’s legacy for producing pop so good that you wonder why other countries still bother. They reached their pinnacle with New Arrival album track, Closer To Perfection.

Initially a slightly underwhelming vaguely electro number, Closer To Perfection somehow makes the transition to blissfully wonderfully perfect without you even consciously realising. I account this to a sprinkling of Swedish fairy dust but if you’re looking for more earth-bound reasons, I suppose I could bang on about the quietly empowering lyrics, the stunning synths, the shiver-down-spine key change from middle eight to final chorus and a chorus that exudes a hold stronger than Derren Brown doing his spooky stuff on an unsuspecting public.

Proof that break-up songs needs not all be clenched fists and feisty divas, the chorus of ‘I’m back in the light getting over you, now I got it together, I’m stronger than ever/Back on the track with a better view and I’m getting closer to perfection cos of you’ is as quietly uplifting as the best of them.

I challenge you to find a pop number from a teen band that, vocoder-ed to the hilt and as catchy as they come, exudes quite so much obvious class. Looking at A*Teens (generally terrible) promo photos, I’m not entirely sure how they managed it myself. Closer To Perfection? Pretty much as close as they come, actually.

UK Chart Peak: Unreleased
Key lyric: ‘I’m getting closer to perfection cos of you’
Get more A*Teens: For All That I Am, Floorfiller, Halfway Around The World

Great Forgotten Pop Songs: Supersister – Coffee

The days when pop acts could afford their own wind machines

All I know about early-noughties girl-band Supersister can be written on the back of a postage stamp. However, that information is so banal (their names were Tina, Louise and Eleanor and they came from Sheffield) that I’d prefer to use that postage stamp for better purposes. The Internet instead prefers to remember a Dutch progressive rock outfit called Supersister – and let’s just say that any unsuspecting fans of that group who accidentally stumble upon this Great Forgotten Pop Song may be in for a bit of a surprise.

Coffee is a frothy, spangly, camper than a Liza Minelli E! Special disco stomper. Coming just as the nineties’ pop bubble was about to burst, it’s a last hurrah for the days when having a vaguely presentable band who knew their way round a catchy chorus was enough to score you a guaranteed top twenty. Coffee is cheesier than a gameshow host’s grin and all the better for it; a big fat platform-booted choon with tongue firmly in cheek and shoe firmly on dancefloor (preferably at the local gay bar).

It basically takes a joke recycled from a thousand chick-lit novels, about liking your men like you like coffee (‘hot strong and sweet like toffee’), and turns it into a full-blown pop extravaganza. Occasionally, this would be witty (‘like caffeine, you kept me up all night’), occasionally, slightly but deliciously dirty (‘fill my cup ‘til it’s flowing down the sides’, ‘in popped my lover, pulled back the covers, cos I like my coffee with cream’) and once, even delightfully British in its references to beverages made with a kettle (‘you’re just my cup of tea’). Packing more puns than a Kathy Lette book/Jimmy Carr routine, there’s some more wordplay about boiling points, steaming and stirrings deep inside before you reach the majesty of the middle eight:

Men like my coffee really turn me on
Sometimes espresso, sometimes he’s too strong
Then there’s Costa Rican, mellow but he’s rich
But never give me instant cos baby, he’s too QUICK

Judging by this mini-opus within a pop song, I’m surprised no enterprising cod-theologist has created a self-help book based on comparing men to coffee à la Men Are From Mars.

Supersister may be forgotten but the time is right for Coffee to be rediscovered. Whether that’s by some coffee advertising hotshots, soulless chick-flick producers needing soundtrack filler or just those out to have a good time under the glitter of the discoball is irrelevant. Kettle’s on.

UK Chart Peak: 16
Key lyric: ‘Fill my cup ‘til it’s flowing down the sides!’
Get more late nineties/early noughties girlie cheesy pop : Atomic Kitten – I Want Your Love, Gina G – Ooh Aah… Just A Little Bit, Girl Thing – Last One Standing

Great Forgotten Pop Songs: Alexis Strum – It Could Be You

Poor old Alexis Strum. The eternal bridesmaid of British pop music, her whole back catalogue could feature in Great Forgotten Pop Songs Of Our Time. Leaving behind a trail of unreleased singles, shelved albums and general almost-but-not-quite-ness, Strum’s work still sounds as timeless and beautiful as it did when it was first (almost) released – making picking just one song to write about rather difficult.

Strum was first dropped after her more poppy debut single and album (the partly Xenomania-produced Addicted) never saw the light of day but come second album time, it looked like her fortunes might change. One song was made the theme tune to a much-hyped new ITV drama, she had a column on PopJustice, some old songs had been covered by Kylie and Rachel Stevens and the video for her lastest single, It Could Be You, was in the top ten most requested chart on The Box. Meanwhile, with the likes of Dido, Katie Melua, KT Tunstall and Lucie Silvas ruling the airwaves, it seemed that the market was ripe for talented female singer-songwriters. In a true mark of ‘making it’, I was even set to interview her!

Of course, in the great tradition of Britishness, this could only mean one thing – it would all go tits up. The release of It Could Be You was shelved, the release of parent album Cocoon was shelved, revised to feature the theme tune, then ummm… shelved again. Her record company couldn’t even get this right – both times, it was accidentally released to online stores, meaning us Strum devotees were able to legally purchase her material. And thank God for the record company’s ineptitude as Cocoon is a gem. (Needless to say and probably most crushingly for Strum, I didn’t get to interview her either).

(Sadly, there is no official trace of It Could Be You on Youtube… so here it is, relegated to soundtracking a Twilight fan video. Sigh)

It Could Be You is trademark Strum at her best. Her ballads, although lovelorn and haunting, are never boring, sappy or sickly-sweet; they burn with a sincerity and honesty that sets her apart from the rest of the field. Whilst lacking the booming Tedder-penned epic quality that has come to define a great ballad these days, Strum’s songs use interesting melodies and subtle synths to keep things interesting and although more than capable of writing a clever lyric (Bad Haircut, Nothing Good About This Goodbye), it’s the stunning simplicity of It Could Be You that makes it so easy to fall in love with.

‘Could I borrow your oxygen, I wanna breathe what you breathe’ is as arrestingly heart-stopping a first line as you could wish for. Yes, it’s an obvious reference to make (sanctimoniously declaring ‘you’re my oxygen’ is practically a requirement in ballads these days) but it perfectly captures that headlong rush of being in love. Strum’s vocals are always chillingly flawless but here, she shines with a delicate anguish on lines like ‘the kiss I almost taste’ and ‘the way your voice speaks to me inside/I cannot hide’.

It’s a simple idea, beautifully executed, with a dreamy quality that positively mists up your speakers.

Meanwhile, Alexis Strum (despite having a stonking name destined for pop) has given up music and is pursuing a career in acting. Well done, record companies. And my entirely legally-purchased music files no longer work because they were bought from Woolworths, which went bankrupt, taking my media usage rights with them. Well done, DRM copy-protection. In short, the only good thing left about this whole sorry affair is the music – and thankfully, very good music it is too. For anyone else, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. For Strum, the struggles only add to its shadowy brilliance.

UK Chart Peak: Unreleased
Key lyrics: ‘Could I borrow your oxygen, I wanna breathe what you what breathe’
Get more: Alexis Strum – Nothing Good About This Goodbye, Bad Haircut, Stay Until Summer

Great Forgotten Pop Songs: Ainslie Henderson – Keep Me A Secret

There probably aren’t that many Top 5 singles that have been practically disowned by their singer/writer, especially when they are rather beautifully-crafted pop gems that most artists would be thrilled to have had a hand in. The next GREAT FORGOTTEN POP SONG OF OUR TIME (yes, the capitals are necessary to create that epic, booming voice feel) is Ainslie Henderson’s Keep Me A Secret.

Henderson was a contestant on the first series of BBC’s Fame Academy, the short-lived rival to ITV’s PopStars/Idol/X-Factor juggernaut. He was the ‘bad boy’ of the house for ummm… pushing over a Christmas tree (this was in the more innocent age of reality tv) and from what I remember, blamed his behaviour on feeling threatened by the also young, male, good-looking and Scottish eventual winner David Sneddon, which if you’ve seen David Sneddon is tantamount to feeling threatened by a pink fluffy teddy bear. Henderson was a little bit emo (possibly before the phrase emo was invented), played the guitar and would stomp about or clutch the microphone angstily when he performed, which meant he would probably never even have auditioned for the ultra-glossy ITV vehicles, let alone got as far as appearing at the live stages.

One of the major differences between the shows (apart from the dodgy decision by the Beeb to let the other contestants have the final vote at ‘evicting’ someone) was Fame Academy’s emphasis on creating an artist, rather than a *cough* karaoke *cough* singer. Sounds pretentious but it basically boiled down to getting the contestants writing their own material, which meant come release time, we didn’t just get a slew of covers (David Sneddon’s rather nice piano-driven debut album is wholly original, self-written songs). Keep Me A Secret, penned by Henderson himself and two other contestants, was a fruit of these labours.

Keep Me A Secret is a rare case of a pop song with indie sensibilities not being a complete abomination. It features a gorgeous fluttery strings section hook, some twinkly tambourine shimmers and a properly anthemic chorus, but it’s the song-writing that lifts it up to a higher plane of pop record. It’s a song where the lyrics are overtly all about doing your best not to fall in love, where the reality of the track is that you’re just about doing everything but. Henderson nails this through expression, both in his wonderfully longing vocal performance and the intoxicating manner of the lyrics.

Other songs would say ‘Don’t kiss me’; Henderson’s says ‘Keep my kisses off your lipsticks, stop me swallowing your charms’. This unusual way of spinning a line makes it more like poetry; it’s tactile, sensual and sexy, with lines like ‘sizzle when it’s face on face, skin on skin’ and ‘don’t let embraces linger, try to keep our arms untied’ bristling with a physicality that’s all the more stirring because it’s forbidden. Elsewhere, it’s the constant push-and-pull of the lyrics that drives it – ‘I’m trying to keep you out and I’m trying to keep me in’, ‘I’ll keep you out of my dreams if you keep me out of yours’ and the brilliantly-fashioned yearning of the middle eight that deserves to be quoted in it’s entirety: ‘All I’m asking/Is for nothing/And if nothing is enough for you/Oh leave it unsaid, keep it inside your head/Under your breath…’ (Henderson keeps that last note hanging with a desperate ache)

It’s not all great – there’s a dodgy bit around the second verse where Henderson rhymes mad with ermmm… mad that always makes me cringe. But for the most part, it’s truly gorgeous song-writing married with a charming sprightly melody.

Apparently, Henderson’s other songs were considered too risqué for a major label and Mercury dropped him before releasing a second single, let alone a whole album that would corrupt young ears. So proud is he of Keep Me A Secret that it doesn’t even feature on his self-released album, Growing Flowers By Candlelight, and has been airbrushed out of existence on his official site. He needn’t be ashamed. This is one secret I’m letting you in on – Keep Me A Secret is wonderful.

UK chart peak: 5
Key lyrics: ‘Keep my kisses off your lipstick, stop me swallowing your charms’; ‘Keep me out of my dreams, if you’ll keep me out of yours’
Get more not unattractive above-average boys with guitars: Alistair Griffin – Oblivion, Alex Gardner – I’m Not Mad

Great Forgotten Pop Songs: The Pipettes – Pull Shapes

If Pull Shapes has been released in the 60s, it would now be a Radio 2 staple, feature on countless crappy compilation albums and be one of those tunes that everyone inexplicably comes out the womb knowing. Instead, it had the misfortune to be released in 2006 and miserably limped in at number 26 on the charts. There are fewer greater injustices in pop because Pull Shapes is glorious, radiant life-affirming stuff. Goodness pours out of its every chord.

The Pipettes were a trio that specialised in homages to 60s’ girl group pop with their Phil Spector-created ‘wall of sound’. To hammer home this fact, they wore polka-dot dresses and did cute synchronised hand movements dances, which often made their schtick veer more closely to end-of-the-pier pastiche than the majesty of their tunes really needed them to. They’ve also gone enough line-up changes to cement their place in girl group history (as a girl group trio, they’ve now enjoyed the services of seven members and that’s not including the comings and goings of their backing band, The Casettes). I once wrote a brief history of the band and ended it with ‘no-one got divorced, beheaded or died’ which just about sums up the absurdity of the revolving doors of The Pipettes, as they’re now a duet of sisters with no 60s’ influences in sight (or should that be sound?!) yet Pull Shapes captures the group at their, possibly never to be attained again, peak.

From the opening thirty-five seconds of instrumental intro, you just know it’s going to be divine. Kicking off with a drum-roll (as all good things often do), sound upon sound is layered until a joyous trilling section marks the arrival of voices. The lyrics are inconsequential – simple, almost trivial chatter about liking disco, hearing drums and dancing (duh…) – but it’s all in the delivery. Whilst the current line-up may have the better harmonies, they’re not a patch on the combination of Gwenno (the only one still remaining), Rosay and RiotBecki for charisma. The verses are shouted with pure tangible joy and when the harmonies do kick in on the delightful chorus mixed with heady backing instrumentation, it’s just too delicious for words. Indeed, it can only be expressed through dance – good job they’re imploring you to ‘pull shapes’ (love it – so British) as you’ll no doubt find yourself busting out a little boogie, even in the full glare of public transport.

There’s then the appetite-whetting genius of the stop-start ‘What do you when the music stops?’ section and the always-a-winner audience interaction of ‘Clap your hands if you want some more!’ before the thing sprints to an ending that comes far too soon. There’s this giddy whirling noise that comes to the foreground on the penultimate chorus that is the exact sonic expression of how I feel when I hear Pull Shapes – dizzy with joy and high on life. And even though I said it’s over far too soon, it adheres to the Eurovision rule of the perfect 3 minutes; all the fat’s been trimmed, it ends with a bang rather than a fade-out and you find your finger twitching towards the ‘repeat’ button practically before it’s over.

Its retro stylings mean that it doesn’t get dated, instead merely cementing its position as a forgotten classic. After hearing it, you might (like my boyfriend) find yourself prone to yelling ‘Pull Shapes!’ at random moments. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Truly glorious life-affirming stuff. I’ll meet you on the dancefloor.

UK chart peak: 26
Key lyric: ‘I just wanna move, I don’t care what the song’s about!’
Get more: The Pipettes – ABC, Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me, Judy

Read my interview with The Pipettes here