Twenty-eight years ago, five women intersected (somewhat) by happenstance and changed the face of popular music shortly thereafter. This isn’t shameless hyperbole, it’s a statement of fact. The continued permanence of the Spice Girls speaks volumes to the mark they made from 1996 through to 2000, collectively and individually.
That is my professional view of the Spice Girls, but personally? I just love them.
My career as a music journalist, critic and author can be put down to purchasing Spiceworld (1997) and literally studying that collection down to every lyric, vocal and production arrangement. But not everyone has had this experience with the British pop phenom. Positive and negative chatter has swirled around Victoria Beckham, Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm and Geri Halliwell-turned-Horner from the moment they bounded into the pop culture consciousness in June of 1996. However, it’s been super satisfying to watch the conversation shift toward warmer sentiments and away from the chillier criticism they’ve faced in the past.
This can be placed squarely on the strength of the Spice Girls’ recorded output.
That was my reasoning for writing about their artistic journey (thus far) in my book Record Redux: Spice Girls. The inaugural edition surfaced in 2016 but being a compulsive perfectionist, I knew there was room for improvement; I rewrote the project from the ground up at the top of 2020 and worked through to the fall of 2021. If you’ve picked up the revamped second edition since issued, you can easily see the differences between the original iteration and its successor.
Having Steve Pafford, a fellow audiophile, music journalist/author and native Brit, approach me about discussing not only the book, but ten of my “essential” Spice Girls tracks was too tempting to refuse. Here’s hoping he’s impressed and you, the reader, are entertained.
What dya think about that?
Love Thing (1996)
“I’m not afraid of your love, why can’t you see I’ve had my share of that?”
What a tune.
Penned by the Spice Girls with Cary Bayliss and Eliot Kennedy — Paul Wilson and Andy Watkins handled the boards — the group tipped its hat to preceding female acts Eternal, En Vogue and TLC in how they married R&B and pop together via Love Thing and Spice, the record it hailed from. Unlike those acts, the English quintet had a larger songwriting hand in the material they sang. Because of this, that trademark Spicy personality infuses the words of Love Thing with a singular energy that gives it the unique, declarative voice that helps set them slightly apart from their influences.
Each Spice Girl shines on this saucy kiss-off, but they never lose sight of their “girls together” attitude when it comes to their harmonies and a chorus that literally jump kicks off the speakers while it’s playing.
Spice Up Your Life (1997)
“Kung-fu fighting! Dancing queen! Tribal spacemen and all that’s in between!”
So, my first encounter with the Spice Girls happened at the top of 1997 in a traffic jam with my family coming back from a mini-vacation somewhere in Kentucky. I was eleven years old.
As the final plucky strains of Wannabe faded and the programmer returned to the airwaves to announce who had just taken over our car radio, there was a beat of silence. My Dad scoffed before stating coolly that they (the Spice Girls) “wouldn’t last.” My quiet curiosity about what I just experienced wasn’t at dampened by his comment.
Flash forward to the fall of that same year (I was twelve now) and I was recovering from an allergic reaction to a field full of ragweed after being forced to play on my school’s junior high football team (groan). Feeling miserably miscast in this role and confused about where to go next, the Spice Girls appeared almost out of nowhere with their madcap samba adventure Spice Up Your Life. I remember literally sitting up on my bed to look at my radio as the irrepressible jam pumped out of its speakers. I knew then that what I had felt months earlier wasn’t just a temporary thing — by March of 1998, I had taken my first step toward Spice Girls fandom and things would never be the same again (no pun intended).
Pivoting from those recollections, I want to comment on the music itself. The single (Spiceworld’s opening salvo) was a massive stylistic leap forward from the slick R&B-pop that typified much of Spice. A Spice Girls, Matt Rowe and Richard Stannard knockout, Spice Up Your Life is a combination of ambitious kitsch and kinetic sound that gives credence to the globetrotting honorific of their sophomore long player.
Saturday Night Divas (1997)
“Well, it was Saturday night, I know the feeling was right…!”
Back at the beginning of my Spice Girls fandom, it seemed like only Mom appreciated the fivesome’s well-rounded tunage; my Dad, however, was mostly nonplussed, although he did hold some affection for their “tougher” pieces. Saturday Night Divas was one such piece. To be clear, Dad’s musical tastes included the likes of George Duke, Dr. Dre, Guy and Parliament Funkadelic — very male acts rooted in jazz, hip-hop, R&B and funk-rock respectively. For him to have taken to a Spice Girls track meant that it had to be exceptional. He was clearly captivated by its punchy synth-soul frame that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Vanessa Williams or Jody Watley set from the late 1980s — the melody grafted onto it though was pure pop. But Papa Harrison didn’t seem to mind that too much.
Like any pop genre act worth their salt, the Spice Girls’ uncanny ability to alternate between musical aesthetics is what aided them in building such a broad audience coalition that ran the gamut from young to old, black to white, British to American, and everything in between.
Within the context of its inclusion on Spiceworld, Saturday Night Divas is certainly one of its smartest entries; the deep cut became an immediate fan favourite. The girls, along with work colleagues Rowe and Stannard, have reason to continue to look back on this composition with pride as it proved that they could yield strong non-single fare.
Too Much (1997)
“Love is blind as far as the eye can see, deep and meaningless words to me…”
If I’m totally honest, Spice Up Your Life and Too Much often alternate as my all-time favourite Spice moments (Quentin, who do you think you are? Sorry! — Ed.) — the sheer craft and excellence contained in the latter selection can often put it ahead of the former. Plotted by the Spice Girls, Watkins and Wilson, Too Much is arguably the Spice Girls at their vocal and lyrical best as they wax poetic about romantic indifference over this dreamy recreation of the doo-wop torch ballad.
A hit on both sides of the Atlantic that curried favour with typically hard-nosed critics, the track still warranted further accolades than what it was given at the time. There really wasn’t anything out there like it at the time and it’s managed to hold onto that mystique two decades later. Brava ladies.
Walk Of Life (1997)
“Swingin’ in the dark and heart thumpin’, London Town is thumpin’…!”
More than any other outtake from this five-piece assigned to B-side status, Walk of Life, a Spice Girls, Watkins and Wilson collaboration, was deserving of having been slotted onto an LP proper. One of two (along with the freestyle corker Outer Space Girls) to feature opposite the single Too Much, the quintet tuck into an authentic slice of after-hours reggae. The brass work here kicks ass.
A hallmark of the European leg of their The Spiceworld Tour, Walk of Life could have easily been added to any of the setlists for the concerts the Spice Girls embarked upon in 1999, 2007/2008 and 2019.
Here’s hoping it is restored to the forthcoming Spiceworld reissue later this year.
“Caught in craze, it’s just a phase or will this be around forever?”
This 45 was issued on March 9, 1998 (my 13th birthday) in Britain; five days later I purchased Spiceworld, my very first album. Kismet right?! Separate from that personal bit of fanboy lore on my part, Stop broke the Spice Girls consecutive run of number-ones at home when it landed in second place there.
Still, Stop remains one of the finest singles they’ve ever put forward — a gorgeous pastiche/tribute to their stateside foremothers, The Supremes. Co-writing and tunesmithing colleagues Wilson and Watkins worked some major mojo here with the quintet! Their performance of this bijou at the 1998 BRIT Awards (with a massive brass section) was, to me, as they sang live, a far superior performance to one they gave the year before. America wouldn’t see a third (and sadly final) single from the Spiceworld campaign until mid-June. By then Geri had departed the fold.
Viva Forever (1998)
“Back where I belong now, was it just a dream?”
The Spice Girls came out of the gate as exceptional balladeers and Viva Forever certainly doesn’t disprove that. Orchestral, melancholic and lush, Spiceworld’s conclusive single has held emotional significance with Spice devotees due to its release occurring in the slipstream of Geri’s defection. The 45 was the ladies’ seventh chart-topper in Britain, though I’ve never understood why its single release was withheld from the American marketplace.
At its surface, this downtempo is about a romance long since passed, yet fans and some critics have read it as an incidental marker of the Spice Girls passage out of the joyful youth of their first two years into the more adult epoch that lay ahead. Viva Forever was scripted by the Spice Girls in cooperation with Matt Rowe and Richard Stannard — unquestionably, it’s one of their most stunning and poignant compositions.
“Start from the bottom and work your way up slowly…!”
Under the working title of Holler Holler, this electro-R&B-pop ditty was first introduced to audiences in a series of superlative live dates circa December 1999 in the United Kingdom. Drafted by the Spice Girls alongside American tunesmith Rodney Jerkins and his accomplished production clique, Holler Holler went down like a storm at those Christmas in Spiceworld shows — it appeared as a formal second single to the Forever album that following October. They would drop down to just a single Holler versus two.
Packaged in double A-side style with the plush ballad Let Love Lead The Way, the reduced foursome evinced that they could hang tough with other girl outfits ripping up the charts such as All Saints and Destiny’s Child, and push their vibe forward into a new decade. Holler / Let Love Lead The Way became the Spice Girls’ ninth record breaking (and thus far final) British chart-topper; it was also their second without Geri. Because the single was never granted a commercial release in the States, I always felt I was sort of in on a secret nobody else knew about. Still a thrill over two decades later, Holler has more than held its own next to other beloved Spice Girls singles and has become a performance tentpole in their reunion tours.
Weekend Love (2000)
“You thought that this was love, but my plan wasn’t that for us.”
This has been an eternal earworm from the moment I encountered it as teenaged Quentin way back in the fall of 2000. Written by the Spice Girls, Jerkins and the late LaShawn Daniels, Weekend Love eyes those saucy R&B-pop tracks of Spice yesteryear like Last Time Lover, One of These Girls and the aforementioned Love Thing, but pairs it with a slightly sophisticated twist as expressed across Forever project en masse. What I think is interesting about this track is how that remarked upon sophistication is realised through a callback to a semi-vintage PIR Records soul-pop sheen (those mock sitars!) in its production.
Granted, although there’s still that modern Jerkins sheen applied here, the PIR reference gives the song a pretty, melodic lilt — almost classic. Like If You Wanna Have Some Fun, Weekend Love was queued up for release as a follow-up to Holler / Let Love Lead the Way and received a Taiwanese test pressing (now a collectible). Unfortunately, internal tensions within the Spice Girls led to a moratorium on all further promotion regarding Forever — a missed opportunity if ever there was one.
If You Wanna Have Some Fun (2000)
“Wink wink, nudge nudge, tell me do you like the rudest stuff?”
A true classic that peers back to the frothy “‘round the way girl” peaks of 1996’s Spice, but with a womanly refinement, If You Wanna Have Some Fun was one of two selections co-conceived between the Spice Girls, James Harris III and Terry Lewis—you might know them as the Minneapolis maestros Jam and Lewis. A glorious pop-funk floorfiller with a bit of old school charm (à la Exposé), but with a thoroughly new school feel, the four-piece demonstrate how effective they’d grown at reworking their harmony structure sans Geri.
To me, this corker is only matched by Who Do You Think You Are and Saturday Night Divas, two anterior Spice Girls steppers that are cool, flirty and sophisticated. Had this song gone out as an intended single from its parent affair Forever, the Spices surely could have landed another smash hit in their homeland. In my most fevered teenaged daydreams, If You Wanna Have Some Fun got serviced to stateside radio outlets in early 2001 and dominated various formats — a boy could dream, right?
Quentin Harrison is an Atlanta-based writer, author, and originator of the Record Redux book series. Tune in tomorrow for our exclusive interview on Girl Power: legacy or nostalgia? Exclusively at stevepafford.com
Melanie G / Sophisticated Lady (1999): B-side to her equally impressive cover of Cameo’s squelchy 1986 funk workout Word Up! (for the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack), Sophisticated Lady was Mel B’s cheeky valentine to her (then) husband Jimmy Gulzar, hence why she briefly went under the stage name Melanie G. The couple divorced not long afterward, but this handsome soul-pop stunner — with fellow Spice Girl Emma on backing vox duty and British hip-hop emcee Dexter guesting— has lost none of its lustre.
Victoria Beckham / Like That (2001): This awesome non-single side from Beckham’s eponymous solo debut set — she recorded two more full-length affairs that remain unreleased — that evinced how well her calm, cool and collected persona synced up with glossy R&B-pop fare. Had she stayed in this medium, who knows what else she might have cooked up.
Geri Halliwell / Passion (2005): The opening number and title track to Geri’s third (and so far, final) studio collection is a beautiful love letter to the handsome cabaret pop that Barbra Streisand and Dionne Warwick made famous in the 1960s. With her husky, evocative tones floating over this ornate arrangement, the now Mrs. Horner couldn’t have asked for a better throwback pop setting.
Emma Bunton / Don’t Call Me Baby (2019): After a break of a little over a decade, Emma returned with My Happy Place, her fourth studio effort that paired two Bunton originals to a raft of tastefully rendered covers. Don’t Call Me Baby, a millennium mirrorball chestnut courtesy of Antipodeans Madison Avenue, fit Emma like a hand in glove. Emma gives it a warm, understated treatment that doesn’t disrespect its sensuous dance roots yet allows her to cast it in her inimitable adult pop mould. That it wasn’t earmarked as a single remains a disappointment.
Melanie C / In and Out of Love (2020): A fleshy nu-disco trip, In and Out of Love was one of five commercial singles lifted from her acclaimed, self-titled eighth studio outing; if there were any justice in the world, this masterjam would have stormed the charts worldwide. As it is, it has become another solo catalogue gem for Melanie C that established fans or newcomers can (and will) discover for years to come.