Monday, September 21, 2009

RIP Sugababes

Being a fan of UK pop group the Sugababes has often been "tumultuous" to say the least. It all began with Keisha Buchanan, Siobhan Donaghy and Mutya Beuna. "Overload" was the first song I ever heard from them and it was a stunning piece of music, but one that actually improves with age. Pop music, no matter what many of us pop music tragics will tell you, does indeed have the ability to age horribly (but, as any pop music tragic will you too, so does any genre), so it's amazing how well it stands up today.

Starting with the initial surprise of the departure of original member Siobhan Donaghy and the inclusion of former Atomic Kitten member Heidi Range (remember, Atomic Kitten weren't yet quite the joke that they inevitably became), which then lead to their progression from soul pop - see tracks like "New Year" and "Soul Sound" - to out-and-out bonafide electro pop with the Richard X produced, and completely monolithic, "Freak Like Me". Then several years and several brilliant albums later came the biggest shock when news came that Mutya Beuna was leaving.


"How could this happen?" we asked? It was then that the image of the Sugababes slipped. One of the great things about the Sugababes - one of the things that made them so respected in an industry that had been conditioned to reject "girl groups" by default - was that they seemed to have such integrity as a band. These personalities that would normally not make pop stars with voices like liquid and the ability to craft amazing music was such a rare "perfect storm" for pop. And now there was only one tangible link to the past and that was Keisha. Siobhan Donaghy had made it very clear what she thinks of Keisha and it's not very flattering. Mutya went on to forge a solo career that produced on album (Real Girl) that flopped and one of the finest singles of the decade in "Song 4 Mutya (Out of Control)" with Groove Armada.

Into Beuna's spot came Ammelle Berrabah, a brash seemingly very outspoken girl who sounded like she came from the housing estate wielding a deck chair to smash over your head. It became very easy to love Ammelle even if she never really got to record a proper album until years later on Change (she had re-recorded some of Taller in More Ways and recorded the greatest hits track "Easy"). She injected another edge into the Sugababes that made sense, but it still wasn't the same.

It was probably here that things really started to fall apart for the "Sugababes". They were still the Sugababes, but it was more in name only. They continued to make amazing music (tracks like "About You Now" and "You On a Good Day" prove that), but that respectability had worn off. Routinely appearing in the tabloids for various non-music related efforts including Berrabah's violent outbursts, a "feud" with another British pop outfit, Girls Aloud, and jokes about the group's "revolving door" took the shine off of the aura of respectability that the girls had carved.

And now comes 2009. They had already released "Get Sexy", which I thought was a corker of a track. I called Ammelle "just that cool" and the song "very big and very amazing". Another track called "About a Girl" leaked to radio and now they're finished. The writing was probably on the wall, come to think of it in retrospect, since the Sugababes always released their album directly after the lead single. Their latest album, however, was held back and then reports came of Ammelle going AWOL after big fights. However, nobody could have predicted the way the group went about ending their existence.

"I'm sad to say that I am no longer a part of the Sugababes" were the words I expected to hear coming from Ammelle Berrabah. They, however, came from Keisha. The last remaining member of the original line-up and the last tangible thread to an "idea" of what the Sugababes are. Or were, as the case now is.

From PopJustice

Monday 21st September

The current line-up of the Sugababes has disbanded.

Heidi Range and Amelle Berrabah will continue as the Sugababes and will be joined by new member Jade Ewen. They release their album ‘Sweet 7’ on November 23rd through Island Records.

Keisha Buchanan will continue to record for Island Records as a solo artist.

So, yes, the brand of "Sugababes" will indeed continue, apparently, but the Sugababes are dead. They're over. Finished. Done. And it is very sad. No offence to Ammelle and Heidi, and perhaps even Jade although I don't know much of her other than "My Man" and that Eurovision song she did, but if they continue on as the Sugababes then they are just shitting on the legacy of one of the greatest girl groups that ever existed.

My affection for the Sugababes is so incredibly strong. Debut album One Touch came out in 2000 and it was around this time that I came out (to myself, at least). I had always loved music and always loved music that a boy wasn't meant to like, but the Sugababes were, if I am recalling correctly, the first artist of their kind that I didn't hide my affection for. They gave me the freedom to like whoever I wanted to like and I felt their soothing harmonies helping to make life tolerable. So they mean much more to me than just a girl group that had a few really great songs. They were a part of me. Sure, I've joked along with everyone else about the way they ditch and recruit new members at the drop of a hat, but underneath it all was such a strong river of love for them that it pained me to make fun of them.

All three of the original Sugababes will now be solo artists. Siobhan Donaghy's stuff has been extraordinary (think Kate Bush 2.0) while Mutya's was more of a mixed bag (think Hazell Dean 2.0). I know exactly what sort of music Keisha is going to produce; it's not going to be the same. It's never going to be the same. Listening to a new Sugababes song isn't going to feel right knowing that it is Heidi, Ammelle and Jade singing. They'll merely be feeding off a dead corpse.

I guess we had it great though for a while there, didn't we? It's not very often that a group like the Sugababes are around. They released six albums in 8 years, and with Sweet 7 to be released late this year it was to be seven album, which is an incredibly achievement, really, considering how great they all are. "Great" actually doesn't even begin to describe them. One Touch is a completely different sound to the rest of their discography, but it remains one of their most important. Any album with such classics as "New Year", "Overload", "Soul Sound" and "Run for Cover" is worth more than the price of a purchase.

How does one extol the virtues of Angels with Dirty Faces? Songs like "Freak Like Me", "Stronger", "Round Round", "Virgin Sexy", "Shape"... all transcendental. The former, actually, is what I'd call a truly perfect song. It towers over the decade. I remember watching the video clip for the first time and my eyes just lighting up like disco balls. It was sexy and predatory and dirty and incredible.

I've always had a soft spot for Three. Whether it's the truly sublime ballads like "Conversations Over", "Caught in a Moment", "Too Lost in You" and "Sometimes". And then there's the epic electro pop of "Hole in the Head" (who can ever forget those monstrous lyrics about Ricki Lake, selling ass and manicures?), "In the Middle" and "Whatever Makes You Happy". The album ends with a song called "Maya" that truly must be heard to be believed. It's haunting and hopeful all at once.

Taller in More Ways is another stunner, and one that has actually revealed itself over time. Songs like "Ace Reject", "Push the Button" (the 'babes biggest hit here in Australia), "Better" sound a bit lighter than some of the other pop the Sugababes produced, but tracks like "It Ain't Easy", "Obsession" and "Gotta Be You" showed signs of where they were heading, a sound that it seemed like they'd make an entire album out of with Sweet 7. "Red Dress" always felt like a twin sister with "Freak Like Me", which is a very good thing, and to not praise "Joy Division" and "Follow Me Home" is just wrong.

Change was the first album featuring Ammelle Berrabah and it wasn't what I expected. It's very light and frothy and full of summery rays of sunshine. Lead single "About You Now" allayed any fears that Berrabah's inclusion would produce an album of tracks like "Easy" (the song Berrabah recorded on the Sugababes' greatest hits compilation), which is clearly one of the filthiest songs to make the chart since Prince's hey day. "About You Now" sounds like vintage Sugababes so it's no surprise that it proved to be one of their biggest hits. The closing minute ranks as one of music finest moments of the decade. But the entire album was surprising and, for me, easily trumped Girls Aloud's Tangled Up, which was released in the same year. Listen to songs like "Surprise (Goodbye)", "Denial", "My Love is Pink", "Never Gonna Dance Again" and "Undignified" and they will warm your heart.

Catfights & Spotlights seems to get forgotten, which is a shame since it holds some truly fine work. "You on a Good Day", "Every Heart Broken", "Hanging on a Star" and "Beware" all deserved to be much more known and loved. "Can We Call a Truce" proved beautiful then and does so now even more so.

"Back When", however, from Change now has a whole new meaning in the light of everything that's happened in the last week. This song alone is enough to make me want Keisha, Siobhan and Mutya to get back together and do a one-off farewell reunion concert. Getting those three together again, despite their feelings towards each other, would truly bring a tear to my eye. They should do it and say goodbye the name "Sugababes" forever.

I wish Heidi and Ammelle the best of the luck, but they are not the Sugababes. The Sugababes are over and it's a sad day in music. They were instrumental the rise of pop music this past decade and I find it quite fitting that they lasted nine years in an era where they were given a lifespan of two albums. They may have changed faces, sounds and looks, but they were always saviours of great pop music. They'll live on in their music, almost all of which is better than everything in the top 40 right now. Goodbye, Sugababes. It's been great having you.

Unfortunately I'm not able to embed any Sugababes video clips, but I suggest you check out - if nothing else - the video for "Freek Like Me". Their best song, perhaps the best song of the decade (you'll find that out in about 3.5 months time, btw) and a fantastic, creepy clip. RIP.


J.D. said...

This was beautiful, Glenn.

seanisbored said...

Great post, amazing.

Dave said...

This was lovely, and really quite sad, to read. A fantastic personal tribute to a group now truly gone.

M said...

Sorry to ask, but what happened with Atomic Kitten that they became a joke? I did't follow much on UK girl groups until now, so I really don't know

lee jun-hoe said...

That was a really nice and well-written piece. I first heard of Sugababes with Overload, but keep up occasionally after that with their second album. After Mutya left I just sorta forgot about them. Was going through some Sugababes nostalgia lately and came across this post by you.

Anyway,I tried to dig up the latest news you have on Sugababes but didn't find any. So I'm not sure if you've seen this piece yet.