The last time Sugababes played the Scala together was way back in 2002, when they were promoting their recently released second album Angels With Dirty Faces. Producing two Number 1 singles and selling almost one million copies in the UK alone, it launched them into the pop stratosphere, heralded a string of superior singles and meant they’d rarely play such intimate venues again.
By then, of course, the idiosyncratic talents of Mutya Buena and Keisha Buchanan had been joined by the silky smooth vocals of Heidi Range, with original member Siobhan Donaghy having left the group under a cloud of acrimony. Donaghy later claimed later that Buchanan had been a “bully” who made her life “a living hell” and stridently declared “I’ll never forgive her”.
They say time heals all wounds but given such strength of feeling it’s still somewhat remarkable, then, that the three ladies since dubbed the ‘Origibabes’ have reunited under the ‘does what it says on the tin’ name of Mutya Keisha Siobhan (MKS). Remarkable but not surprising – the combination of Buena and Donaghy’s failed solo careers and the sad degeneration of the ‘Sugababes’ name must have made a reunion seem like the only possible road back to relevancy. In hindsight, Buchanan’s forced ejection from Sugababes in 2009 was the best thing that could have happened to her, meaning as it did that she exited just before the wheels fell off with the wretched Sweet 7 (which was, lest we forget, originally recorded with Buchanan.) Indeed, it seems too perfect that MKS make their full-length live debut in the same week that current Sugababe Jade Ewan indicated that the group was probably finished.
Both Buena and Donaghy played the Scala as solo artists in appearances at the gay alternative night Popstarz and to say that the trio’s appeal to that audience is evident tonight would be something of an understatement. It almost seems like every gay man in London is crammed into the sweaty space, with female faces being few and far between. It’s the kind of slavishly loyal crowd that you’d expect at such a small showcase gig yet MKS’ arrival on stage, heralded by the sophisticated beats of debut single Overload, is undeniably thrilling on its own merits. A powerful charisma hangs in the air, a sense that these three have that nebulous ‘X Factor’ that has so permeated our pop language. A perfect rendition of Run For Cover, still one of Sugababes’ greatest singles, underlines the fact.
I’m Alright, the first of eight new songs showcased tonight, follows. Like the later No Regrets, its lyrics appear to reference the melodramas that have dogged the group, adding a compelling hook for tonight’s hardcore fans. It’s typical of the new material: tasteful, grown-up r&b of the kind that has become so synonymous with Emeli Sandé, albeit with deliciously tight harmonies. In fact the shuffling rhythms of Today heavily recall Sande’s Heaven (and, like Heaven, it brings Massive Attack’s Unfinished Symphony to mind) while No Regrets sounds rather like Leona Lewis’ Sandé-penned Trouble. The angular ’80s-funk of Boys (which itself nods towards Britney Spears’ I’m a Slave 4 U) is a confident stand-out.
The coffee-table appeal of much of the new songs can’t help but pale, however, beside performances of Stronger and Freak Like Me, both from aforementioned Angels with Dirty Faces. They remind of how dazzling and daring Sugababes were in their prime – a prime which, it must be said, came when Donaghy had left. There’s an odd moment during Stronger where the crowd goes crazy for Donaghy’s rendition of what was originally Heidi Range’s middle-eight. Afterwards Buchanan passes her mic to an audience member who shouts ‘don’t fuck with the originals!’ The sentiment is met with uproarious approval but you can’t help feel that it’s all rather petty given Range’s enormous contribution towards making Sugababes the force it was. There’s a strong impression that MKS have been enormously mythologised yet it’s surely telling that they largely ignore their middling (Sugababes) debut this evening.
If it’s difficult to imagine a wider audience getting terribly excited by most of tonight’s new material, the encore does offer a glimpse of what could be. A cover of Kendrick Lamar’s Lay Down in Swimming Pools is hair-raisingly sensational, exactly the kind of compellingly modern pop that you hope for from this group. It’s also clear why the closing Flatline is to be MKS’ debut single – it’s a dazzling left-of-centre pop gem which sounds unlike anything else in the charts at the moment (which in itself recalls the impact of Overload all those years ago.) A brief rendition of Push The Button during the middle-eight sends the fans wild and then, with emotional hugs and tears, MKS are gone.
It’s clear that for a certain audience this reunion is manna from heaven and the goodwill towards MKS is palpable. There is the sensitivity, however, that a wider audience never took either to this original Sugababes line-up or to their solo careers. Yet MKS undeniably have a magnetism and fascination to them and, when married to the striking pop showcased at the encore, it makes for an alluring and refreshing package. If they deal mainly in Sandé-isms, though, it’s difficult to imagine many people outside of the Scala caring.