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Perfect 10: Girls Aloud on 45

You probably saw the news. Girls Aloud are set to reunite for an arena tour in 2024 in memory of their late bandmate, Sarah Harding. A bittersweet celebration of sorts, it’s easy to forget that they were a pre-fabricated band that came out of yet another reality/talent show, in this instance 2002’s Popstars: The Rivals, judged in more ways than one by Pete Waterman, Louis Walsh and Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. 

Sarah, Cheryl, Nadine, Nicola and Kimberley achieved the remarkable feat of 21 UK Top 10 singles as arguably the greatest girl group to come out of the British Isles, before Harding tragically succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 39 in 2021. 

Girls Aloud went on to become the UK’s most successful girl group of the century, achieving four No 1 singles and seven Top 11 albums, including compilations. Their widespread appeal was evident in not only The Promise –  their most downloaded track ever –  winning the 2009 Brit award for best single (a pop pinnacle I happily squeed at witnessing in the flesh on a cold February night at Earls Court Arena) but also in their high-profile admirers: they have included Bono, George Michael, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, and, er, former Prime Minister David Cameron, that is when he wasn’t failing to understand what The Jam‘s Eton Rifles is actually about.

The combo’s enviable record is testament to how the quintessential quintet not only matched their original brief but massively exceeded it. Though it’s doubly disappointing that Sarah was the only member who didn’t manage to release a solo album. After Girls Aloud went their separate ways in 2013, Harding announced plans to release a long-player which sadly never materialised, instead embarking on an acting career that included a stint on the cobbles, as Joni Preston in ITV’s Coronation Street.

Sarah’s solo endeavours had got off to a promising start in 2008 – well ahead of her bandmates – with a rendition of Real Wild Child, the David Bowie-produced rocker that gave Iggy Pop his first bona-fide hit. Curiously, that was followed in 2009 by three songs that were used on the film soundtrack to St Trinian’s 2 in which she had a starring role.

As this week is the hello and goodbye anniversary of The Dame on Planet Earth, it would be remiss of me not to point out that the track from the Xenomania-helmed OST that garnered most attention was Sarah’s genderfuck take of Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging  and that actually occurred two years after Girls Aloud provided backing vocals on an edgy Franz Ferdinand cover of Sound And Vision, the classic 1977 45 by Bowie and sonic supremo Brian Eno.

Lastly, as well as featuring in the much talked about Saltburn movie, we are celebrating 21 years since Girls Aloud’s debut single was sitting pretty at the top of the British charts, which, with delicious irony, their contemporary cut and thrust knocked Blue & Elton John off their perch and kept a Bee Gees written leftover in its place. So I’m delighted to welcome the newest scribe to stevepafford.com in the shape of Leeds-born journalist Thomas Allan Ogg, who’s penned his very own Perfect 10 of Girls on 45 and a bit more. He’s got to heat it up…

No Good Advice (2003)

The debut 45 from Girls Aloud – 2002’s Sound Of The Underground – was certainly a cut above the usual bunged-together-on-a-crappy-TV-talent-show boy/girl band product, with its genre-bending blend of surf guitar, electronics and drum-and-bass beats making it a well-deserved chart-topping hit (and I write that as someone for whom ‘drum-and-bass beats’ are typically about as appealing a prospect as skinny-dipping with Louis Walsh).

It was the outfit’s second single, however, that established Cheryl, Sarah, Nadine, Nicola and Kimberley as the most exciting, interesting and experimental ‘manufactured’ pop band since Micky, Mike, Peter and Davy caught the last train to Clarksville back in the swinging ’60s.

As per the majority of Girls Aloud tracks, No Good Advice was written and produced by Brian Higgins and his production team Xenomania, with Higgins’ long-time writing partner and fellow pop genius Miranda Cooper among the co-writers.

And, as so often with Xenomania, the resultant song is both catchy as hell and musically multifaceted, with an opening guitar riff reminiscent of My Sharona by The Knack, a soulful verse melody sung by Nadine Coyle and Cheryl Surnamecorrectatthetimeofwriting, and a semi-spoken closing section that comes out of nowhere but really works. 

And, of course, it goes without saying that the chorus kicks ass.

The Show (2004)

After the release of their disappointingly ho-hum third single Life Got Cold, which famously nicks its melody from Wonderwall by Oasis, and a fairly pointless cover of the Pointer Sisters‘ Jump (recorded at the behest of writer-director Richard Curtis for his nightmarish vom-com Love Actually), it initially seemed that Girls Aloud’s run of classic singles had unceremoniously ground to a halt. And then came The Show.

While Sound of the Underground and No Good Advice had established the quintet as more musically eclectic and exciting than their bland contemporaries, it was The Show – the first original track to be released from the group’s second album – that set the template for much of what would follow.

An irresistible slice of uptempo electropop, The Show stubbornly refuses to obey the rules of conventional pop singles, with the usual verse-bridge-chorus format jettisoned in favour of a track that often seems comprised entirely of choruses, each of which is more catchy than the last, and all of which appear in an order that somehow feels both logical and entirely random.

The accompanying music video is also one of their best, with Cheryl and co playing workers in a salon (Curls Allowed – ho, ho!) who delight in humiliating and torturing their preening male clientele. Sadly, the girls disliked the good-humoured video, for reasons unknown, which is a shame because it’s great fun and all five of them never looked better. A few too many of their subsequent music videos would adopt the taking-turns-to-look-sultrily-into-camera routine as per countless run-of-the-mill boy/girl groups.

Love Machine (2004)

‘We’re gift-wrapped kitty cats/We’re only turning into tigers when we gotta fight back/Let’s go, Eskimo’. Ahh, they don’t write ’em like that anymore…

One of the biggest-selling singles of their career, Love Machine is most memorable for its batshit-crazy lyrics, its toe-tapping singalong chorus and, above all, its central guitar riff, which is almost Smiths-y in its indie-rock stylings. Upon first listening to the song, a newcomer could be forgiven for half-expecting Morrissey to start yodelling away about Joan of Arc, Yeats and Leeds side streets; instead, they’re treated to a bunch of sexy young females singing lines like ‘Mr Prehistoric make your wheel’. (Johnny Marr would, in fact, later play guitar and harmonica on two tracks on the fifth and final Girls Aloud album, Out Of Control.)

Despite its obvious commercial appeal, Love Machine wasn’t a big favourite for the group, or at least not initially, with Nadine labelling it “career suicide” upon first being played the track by Higgins.

Speaking to this author for a promotional interview in 2002, Nadine said: “Oh, I was so dead against it. I was, like, ‘What is this nonsense?’ I just didn’t get it. It didn’t make any sense to me. I would be quite opinionated about the songs and I’d speak my mind – ‘It has to be like this’, ‘It has to be that’ – but, when it came to Love Machine, I admit that I got it wrong. At the time, I said ‘Okay, if you really want us to do it, we’ll do it’ – and, of course, they were absolutely right. It was a hit.”

Biology (2005)

The closest thing in spirit to Good Vibrations and Bohemian Rhapsody in 21st century pop, Biology is structurally unconventional yet instantly accessible, with multiple musically diverse sections seamlessly emerged into a coherent whole. It almost makes The Show seem unadventurous by comparison.

A true Xenomania masterpiece, the genre-hopping track begins in bluesy style with Nadine singing solo atop pounding piano, before then seguing into a lengthy section, which possibly constitutes the verse, and which sees the girls singing alternating lines as the backing track grows increasingly animated. 

The song then soars into the stratosphere with a maddeningly catchy dance-pop chorus (‘We give it up and then they take it away’), except that it isn’t the chorus, it’s merely the bridge, as revealed when the chorus proper duly arrives – almost two-thirds of the way though the song. The opening bluesy section then reappears, followed by a repeat of the chorus, and finally an instrumental fragment to finish.

Despite its idiosyncratic structure, Biology was a huge hit (though not the chart-topper it should have been) and it remains arguably the finest hour for both Girls Aloud and Xenomania. Not for nothing did the Guardian deem it ‘the best pop single of the decade’.

The video is great, too, with the girls showcasing some distinctly unconventional choreographed dance moves. No gazing meaningfully into the camera here.

Something Kinda Oooh (2006)

A standalone single released to promote the girls’ best-of compilation The Sound Of Girls Aloud, Something Kinda Oooh feels relatively straightforward compared to other uptempo Girls Aloud/Xenomania tracks of the time, yet it benefits from a quite ludicrously catchy chorus and the usual Higgins production magic (listen for the distinctly unfeminine backing vocals buried deep in the mix during the chorus).

The lyrics, meanwhile, are salaciously X-rated to the point that it’s a wonder the more pearl-clutching radio commissioners didn’t banish it from the nation’s airwaves. ‘Something kinda ooooh/Bumpin’ in the back room/Something inside of me’ – ooh-er, missus! You can practically hear it going in…

Call The Shots (2007)

The second single from their terrific Tangled Up album (following the flat-out bonkers Sexy! No No No…), Call The Shots is perhaps less experimental than most other Girls Aloud singles from this period (we’re safely in verse-bridge-chorus territory here), yet it boasts a melody that might well be the strongest of any Girls Aloud or Xenomania song ever released.

The instrumental intro and the verses are strong, as is the bridge, but it is when the chorus kicks in that the listener is liable to feel as if a force 10 gale has abruptly blasted out of the speakers. Hurricane Nadine perhaps?

In fact, all of the girls are in fine voice on this one, with Nicola Roberts – generally the least impactful singer in the group – giving her best ever vocal performance during the mesmerising middle-eight, while the backing vocals – often mixed so low as to be almost subliminal – contrast nicely with the powerhouse leads.

A solid-gold pop classic, Call The Shots was voted ‘greatest pop song of the 21st century’ by music website Popjustice, which ought to feel a little premature (there are, after all, still another 76 years of the century to go) but the track is so damn good that such hyperbole feels warranted.

Lovely Cheryl recently cited Call The Shots as a favourite and said it gave her “goosebumps”. Shut the window, Chez – you’ll catch your bloody death, pet.

Can’t Speak French (2008)

I have always been of the opinion that the strength of Girls Aloud lies in their uptempo numbers, which stand head and shoulders above even the best songs of their chart rivals, Sugababes included. By contrast, I find the girls’ slower songs to be generally rather uninteresting, from cheesily bombastic covers of the Pretenders’ I’ll Stand By You and Little Big Town’s Forever And A Night to nothingy originals like Whole Lotta History. To me, they lack the individuality and quirkiness of the rest of their output. 

There are exceptions, however, such as Nobody But You, which was the B-side to the Biology single, and which is a synth-filled dreamy delight worthy of wider exposure (Girls Aloud’s B-sides were consistently strong throughout their glory years).

But perhaps the very best of their slower numbers is Can’t Speak French, which is lively enough to avoid the X Factor-like stylings of their earlier soppy songs, and which was not only attempted in an additional French-language rendition entitled Je Ne Parle Pas Français, but also features a lovely chiming guitar riff that is even more Smiths-ish than the one on Love Machine. 

Take pity on poor old Cheryl who, two days prior to shooting the promo clip for Can’t Speak French, discovered that her hubby – England footballer and monobrowed love rat Ashley Cole – had been doing the dirty on her. What a prat.

The Promise (2008)

It became fashionable in the late 2000s for female artists to emulate the sound and style of ’60s girl groups (see Amy Winehouse, Duffy, etc.). Yet few songs better captured the magic of bygone trios like the Ronettes and the Supremes than this evocative chart-topper, the last Girls Aloud single to reach the top spot.

Accompanied by a fittingly glamorous retro-themed video, The Promise – which was the lead 45 from the girls’ fourth, final and best-selling studio LP, Out Of Control – sees Xenomania eschewing their usual electronic wizardry in favour of a brass-led production that expertly replicates Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound as heard on Be My Baby, Da Doo Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me et al.

That The Promise can legitimately be said to hold its own against such iconic pop classics speaks volumes to its quality.

The Loving Kind (2009)

Co-written by the Pet Shop Boys, The Loving Kind came about after Neil Tennant – having heard Call The Shots on the radio and been duly gobsmacked – recruited Brian Higgins to work on the Boys’ tenth album, 2009’s Yes.

Together, Tennant, fellow Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe and the Xenomania team penned a number of impressive pop songs, none more so than The Loving Kind, which, it was clearly decided, was more suited to Girls Aloud than a pair of aging male popsters.

It really is a lovely-sounding track: nothing too adventurous, just a melodious slice of synth-pop with the girls really selling the happy-sad sentiment of the lyrics (although it must be said that Sarah Harding does rather overdo the Britney-like vocal croaks for my tastes).

Surprisingly, Nicola – who features prominently on the track – later admitted that she hates the song, leading one PSB fan to call her out online as ‘an ungrateful ginger mare’. Truly, there are no more funnier insults than those found on fan forums.

Something New (2012)

And finally to a song that, truth be told, I really don’t like all that much. To my ears, Something New would more aptly be called Something Pedestrian, sounding as it does utterly indistinguishable to the countless other autotune-ridden dance-pop offerings that clogged up the airwaves in the early 2010s.

Maybe it’s a track that sounds great if you’re off your melons on disco biscuits on an Ibiza dancefloor but I’m afraid that’s a social experiment I’m unlikely ever to put to the test. Sitting listening to it through headphones at my work desk, it just sounds like the same old formulaic pap pumped out by every other dance-pop band at the time: same “yo, bring back da beat” lyrics, same synth riff, same vocoder voice.

It all feels to me like a last-ditch attempt to break the girls in the US, especially given the JLo-like stylings of the accompanying video in which all semblance of the girls’ personalities has been scrubbed from view. It is a curious aspect of their career that, although they sold many millions of records in the UK, Girls Aloud were barely able to shift more than a few thousand copies of each of their albums in the US and their singles routinely sank without trace. 

The offbeat nature of much of their music probably played a part but, Nadine aside, there is also something quintessentially English about the group – their accents, their look, their humour – and this possibly made them unpalatable to American ears. A bit like Blur before them, who only found success Stateside when they ditched the knees-up Cockney oompah of Parklife and The Great Escape and adopted a grungy transatlantic sound. Having said all that, I’m aware that Something New is both popular with fans – it reached number two on the UK charts – and with the group themselves, so I accept that I’m in a minority. 

Speaking to this writer about Something New in ’22, Nadine – unaware of my feelings about the 45 (I was too much of a cowardly-custard to admit I disliked it) – said: “I love performing Something New in concert because it always goes down the best: ‘Go girls, g-g-go go go!’ The minute that starts, the crowd just goes crazy. It’s almost as if they don’t know what to do with themselves. And you get this enormous wave of energy that comes back to you. Whenever I perform Something New, the song basically does all the work. I’m just a vessel for it to run through. It makes my job very easy.”

BONUS BEATS

Wild Horses (2005)

One of many cuts on Chemistry that could easily have been a hit single, Wild Horses is an unorthodox pop gem typical of the girls’ critically-acclaimed third album. 

Beginning with a short choir-like vocal showcase, the track then gallops straight into its techno-tinged chorus, which combines early-’90s electronics, rocking guitars and Rolling Stones-aping ‘woo-woo’s’.

Racy Lacey (2005)

A cracking sixties-esque ditty unjustly relegated as a Chemistry bonus track, Racy Lacey would have made a fitting final song for the album proper, not least because of the surprising manner in which it suddenly stops dead mid-chorus.

Fling (2007)

‘It’s just a fling baby, fling baby/Just a bit of ding-a-ling baby, bling baby.’

A highlight of the Tangled Up album, this lyrically undemanding but musically dynamic track is one to be played at Ziggy-like maximum volume.

She (2008)

Perhaps my favourite Girls Aloud non-single, She – which is driven by an absolutely killer synth-guitar riff – rivals even the Monkees’ She as the best pop song ever to be called She (Elvis Costello and Harry Styles can both stick their She songs up their arses).

And to think She was tossed away as the flipside to The Promise, and talking of B-sides…

Memory Of You (2009)

Another stellar B-side, Memory Of You – which sneaked out as the flipside to The Loving Kind – is a duet between Kimberley and Nicola, and would likely be hailed by critics as a synth-pop masterpiece had it been recorded by, say, La Roux. Instead, it remains largely unknown outside of Girls Aloud fan circles. 

The addition of both Memory Of You and She to Out Of Control in place of the dire Fix Me Up would have turned a very good album into a truly great one, and the perfect way to bring the album catalogue of Girls Aloud to a coruscating conclusion. 

Thomas Allan Ogg

Random Jukebox: Girls Aloud’s Call The Shots is here

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