Pop Stuff: Episode 1

Sick and tired of the music press acting as judge, jury and executioner of good taste? Have a sneaky affection for Dean Friedman? Chris De Burgh? Reel 2 Real? Kaiser Chiefs..? Yet afraid to voice your devotion lest it invoke the wrath of your peers?

Well, fear no more. Ryan Thomas offers the first of an occasional series designed to free your mind from the tyranny of peer pressure. And as Funkadelic taught us, only one thing happpens when you free your mind…

…welcome to the first instalment of Popstuff…
Who is to say what is cool and what isn’t? What does ‘cool’ mean anyway? Which Overlord suddenly decided that Babyshambles were cool (ahem… NME… cough…) and, say, Bucks Fizz, were not?

Okay, maybe that was a bad example – although surely Pete Doherty would give his left arm to write something as catchy as The Land Of Make Believe). It is time to open the doors to the fun, trashy, disposable, childish, amusing and silly world of pop music you shouldn’t like but secretly do.

This isn’t a column for fashionistas and poseurs to dig songs ‘ironically’ -whatever that may entail- so that they can demonstrate that they have a sense of humour down at the indie disco, but a genuine adoration of some of the most forgotten, neglected and (hopefully) cherished moments from pop’s yesteryears.

But enough of this preamble! Each week you will read of three new adventures in pop music taken often by some of pop’s true mavericks and at other times by generally irrelevant sorts who had one moment of genius. I have my fingers crossed for the Toni Basil revival, in any case…

We begin with an Aussie country singer who dusted off her spandex and got physical, one of the best pop acts of the past few years and a bunch of New Romantics in kilts. Don’t be shy, you know you love it.

Olivia Newton-John Physical



UK #7

I am probably the only person in the entire world who thinks that Olivia Newton-John looked better in Grease when she was good old Sandra Dee instead of Sandy of the Bonnie Tyler hairdo and figure-hugging black leather. Even though Grease is undoubtedly the highlight of Newton-John’s career for many fans, my attention was captured more by her eye-catching video to 1981’s Physical.

Featuring the All-Australian Girl in leggings, headbands and spandex, it caused quite a stir when it was released, with many people commenting on how clean-cut Olivia had suddenly gone dirty, swapping her country roads for the sweaty scene of the gym and sauna.

The video featured all manner of out-of-shape men who suddenly transform into bronzed Adonises as Olivia moans towards the chorus. The arrangement is simple, nothing too challenging, and the song itself is inane in extreme. But it’s charming as heck and I include it as one of my guilty pleasures because of the effect it had on me as a young lad seeing the video for the first time. “There’s nothing left to talk about,” Olivia sighs, “Unless it’s horizontally”. As Danny Zucko famously said… “SAAAAANDY?!”.

FILE UNDER: Sweaty Aussie delights


Island Records


UK #1

When the Sugababes first emerged onto a stagnant pop scene in 2000 with the sublime Overload, I must admit to being quite taken aback. Overload was the classiest pop song I had heard in some time, a clever, cool, knowing little number by a trio of sassy 16 year olds. My friend scoffed that they were a lame Spice Girls rip-off (“Spice Girls… Sugababes” I remember him saying), but he was wrong, and I was right on the money. After all, the NME said that is was cool to like them, and when is the NME ever wrong?!

But for a time, it looked like my new favourite band were in trouble. Original member Siobhan Donaghy quit the band in mysterious circumstances; it was later revealed that she excused herself from an interview in Japan and fled out of a toilet window, unable to cope with the pressure of her strained relationship with bandmates Keisha Buchanan and Mutya Buena. Single sales had slumped since Overload and the band’s label, London Records, had dropped them. Donaghy’s replacement was Heidi Range, a former member of Atomic Kitten. The signs didn’t look good…

Enter, from stage left, Richard X.

Pop maverick and pioneer of the mash-up – that’s the art of placing one song over another, it’s not a modern form of the charleston – , Richard X, impressed by the new material the girls were working on, invited the girls to sing over his latest track, a fusion of Tubeway Army’s Are Friends Electric? and Adina Howard’s Freak Like Me. The result was instant pop magic, re-establishing Sugababes as a Premier League pop act and cementing Richard X’s reputation as a producer and innovator par excellence. It’s one of the most sublime pop songs of the first decade of the 21st century, and history will judge it as a moment of pop brilliance.

The song’s moment of Zen? The bit towards the end where Heidi, who has a much stronger and expressive voice than Donaghy, cries “It’s.. all… good for me!”. From that moment, you knew that this band were a force to be reckoned with. And you can keep your Libertines, Babyshambles and Arctic Monkeys, thank you very much, because I’m much happier sticking with this most wonderful of bands.

FILE UNDER: Pop it’s okay to like

Spandau Ballet To Cut A Long Story Short

Chrysalis Records


UK #5

I’ve never been a big fan of Spandau Ballet. All that bullshine about Gary Kemp being a major-league songwriter, it doesn’t wash with me. For me, Spandau Ballet will always be one of the blandest and least-innovative bands of the New Romantic era, a band empty of charisma, a colourless, grey band with little to offer. Comparisons with their close rivals Duran Duran were never rooted in reality.

When you buy into the Duran Duran fantasy, you buy into glamour, sex and cocaine. When you buy into Spandau Ballet, you just buy into dodgy lyrics and a vocalist as subtle as a foghorn. You just knew that while Spandau were coming up with lines about being “beautiful and clean and so very, very young” Duran Duran were getting serviced by supermodels on yachts round Rio.

If ever Spandau Ballet were to be tried for crimes against music, the prosecution would have a very strong case. The defence, however, would have one song, just one song with which to defend the band for their heinous crimes. That song is To Cut A Long Story Short.

This was Spandau’s debut single and had all the hallmarks of a promising band. It sounds fresh, important and exciting and is one of the soundtrack songs of the New Romantic era. Sure, it’s got some terrible lyrics, but then it’s a Spandau Ballet song, it’s par for the course. Tony Hadley’s vocals aren’t as annoying as they were to become, managing to keep his wailing to a decent volume, while the jumpy synthesisers lend a cold, urgent appeal to the track. A mightily fine debut, it set the bar so high, the ol’ Ballet just wouldn’t be able to reach these heights again.

FILE UNDER: The tolerable side of New Romanticism

Coming up next: Devo, Tina Turner and Flying Lizards!

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