Girl Power cut
I HAD EXPECTED sneering teenagers, chewing gum and surreptitiously eyeing up each other’s khaki chic. Instead, I find myself in the foyer, knee-deep in six-year-old girls wearing butterfly dips and Mothercare combat pants, whining at their mothers for posters and T-shirts. Here and there, small groups of adolescents are trying their best to look cool, but there is panic in their eyes.
As showtime nears, you can hear the same question being asked: “Are you sure you don’t want to go the loo?” The atmosphere is more panto than pop gig. The seats next to mine are colonised by three little blonde sisters, who bounce around excitedly, burping, squealing and cheering the closed curtains. “What’s your favourite song?” I ask, but they just blush and chew their sleeves. To my horror, their mother glares over at me like I’m some kind of paedophile. Then the lights go down, and the little girls scream.
I wasn’t alone an expecting an older, more discerning crowd for All Saints. When I spoke to a friendly but harassed-sounding Natalie Appleton on the phone earlier in the day, she expressed mild concern at the extreme youth of some of the audiences they’d already encountered on this small theatre tour (a warm up for the arena shows in the summer). “Hull was good, more older people, but there have been a lot of kids, which is worrying because our shows can be a bit… y’know, raunchy,” sighed Appleton, the mother of a seven-year-old girl herself. I got the impression that she, and the other Saints, are somewhat miffed at their sudden expulsion from the hip zone of popular culture.
It had all started so well in 1997, with the irresistibly smooth off-black funk of ‘Never Ever’ garnering commercial success, Brit awards and critical acclaim. For a while, the mouthy girl band in the low-slung combat pants could do no wrong. They were seen by many as a refreshing, streetwise, organic alternative to the omnipresent, ruthlessly commercial Spice Girls. Personally, I still preferred the mocked, untrendy Spices. They were just so silly and sweet and real All Saints, for all their laddishness, seemed a bit sterile, smug, pickled in their own cool.
At first, anyway. In recent times, the stitches in this particular pop tapestry have been coming apart. There were the Appleton sisters’ brawling relationships with their celebrity boyfriends (Natalie bashing ex-squeeze, TV hunk Jamie Theakston; Nicole’s eternally on-off relationship with the rogueish Robbie Williams). There have also been rumours that new mother Melanie Blatt was disenchanted with the music business and that Shaznay T. Lewis, All Saints’ black main songwriter, was irritated by the attention the other Saints were getting, and thinking of going solo. Or, to employ girl-band vernacular, “doing a Geri”.
On top of this, there were the obligatory tabloid “split” stories. “Oh, the papers just want us to split up,” Natalie groans, still smarting from a hostile article in last week’s Daily Mail. This comes with the territory, though. What All Saints should be worried about is the dearth of fresh material, masked initially by their cover hits of Labelle’s ‘Lady Marmalade’, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ ‘Under The Bridge’. As All Saints are supposed to be recording their next album soon, I assumed they would be airing new songs at these shows. Wrong again.
Instead we got the hits, the misses, and a clodhopping Jacksons medley. Taking their stage-school-brat backgrounds into consideration, you’d have to expect a bit of meretricious razzmatazz from an All Saints show. But the “raunchy bits” consisted merely of the girls miserably sticking their crotches into the faces of the four male dancers, with all parties looking embarrassed and self-conscious, while the silky sensuality of their best material was smothered in a horrible soup of superfluous costume changes.
What I didn’t expect was the astounding amateurism of it all. All Saints had better rehearse a little harder before their arena shows. At Nottingham, it was like watching a live TV screw-up, only worse because you couldn’t switch it off. Not only did they sound reedy and pathetic, they looked uncomfortable and bewildered, upstaged and drowned out by their dancers and backing vocalists respectively.
The little girls in the audience didn’t mind but, by the end, I was reduced to amusing myself speculating just how long it would take for the bone-thin Nicole’s cargo pants to lose their grip on her hips and fall down around her ankles. If All Saints want to be remembered as more than just the also-rans of Girl Power, they’re going to have to do a lot better than this.
© Barbara Ellen, The Observer, 25 April 1999