All Saints: Saint Misbehavin’!

If you believe the tabloids, ALL SAINTS are a bunch of tune-nicking, three-in-a-bed romping, manager-bashing, Spice Girl wannabes. But is that bollocks? We join the band in Holland and find them takin’ the piss out of journalists and swearing like f***in’ troopers…

I’M IN HOLLAND, I’m blissfully settled in a hotel lobby and I’ve got All Saints draped around my upper body. Well… an All Saints label coat, that is. “Hey,” I whisper at a passing Melanie Blatt, one gorgeous quarter of arguably the most gifted, exciting and now R&B/hip hop/disco/soul/pop group on the face of the planet, “my coat will probably sue you in a minute.”

“They’d like to try,” she smiles. “Even though we came up with the name first, they trademarked it, so they’ve got the copyright. It doesn’t matter though — they can’t do anything.”

It’s been a funny week for All Saints, legally speaking. First, stories broke about their ex-manager, Paul Hallet, planning to sue for £500,000. Then, to cap even that, it was reported that Eighties funk-pop chart-toppers The Fatback Band had forced All Saints to change the title of one of their album tracks (‘Let’s Get Started’) and surrender all royalties following a wrangle over a sample. ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ anyone?

“I don’t understand what the problem is,” groans Shaznay T (“for Tart”) Lewis, the Saints’ chief songwriter. Yup, that’s songwriter — 80 per cent of All Saint’s debut, eponymous album is self-penned, hence the reason they’re so upset by all this. “We used a sample — which we cleared — but the lyrics and the arrangement are ours.”

Are you going to change the title though?

“I’d rather take the track off the album, to tell the truth. Then they don’t get jack! They don’t deserve it and what goes around comes around, y’know? We made their track sound better than what the original was!”

And what about Paul Hallet?

“This is what Shaznay’s gonna say to him,” yells Nic, one-half of the Appleton sisters — y’know, the blonde ones. “What the f*** is yo name, muthaf***a?”

Ahem. Er, Shaznay?

“He’d gone, we’d got a deal, he found out and got upset and bitter. The thing is, we paid him. There won’t be anything from this.”

“He was a very nice man,” coos Mel.

“Yeah, he was,” agrees Shaznay. “He was really cool — until we got the deal and then, suddenly, he was like Jekyll And Hyde.”

Sounding down? Don’t believe it. All Saints are all smiles today, All Saints are on top of the world. Here in Holland, their second single, ‘Never Ever’, is number four in Britain, it’s still riding high, having hit the number one slot a couple of weeks ago. They’re worshipped across the globe (the list of countries they haven’t visited is already far smaller than the list of those they have) and they feel closer to each other than ever before, happier than they’ve ever been and hungry for more. Like the title of their possible next single, a double A-sided cover of the Chilli Peppers song (coupled with a cover of Labelle’s Classic ‘Lady Marmalade’), all that legal nonsense is just water ‘Under The Bridge’. Come on, let’s get started.

*

Pulling up at the RTL4 TV studios in Hilversum, just outside Amsterdam, you’d almost expect a covert military installation to be lurking behind characterless concrete veneer. Instead, we get a studio that looks like the restaurant section in an average branch of BHS, complete with a presenters’ desk that’s a frightful conglomeration of greengrocer’s and Woolworth’s, adorned with a melon, an armless plastic bust and various pots of stagnant coffee. Having said that, All Saints have had far, far worse TV experiences. “We were doing this live Italian TV Show,” recalls Nic, “and, after we sang, they said: ‘Now come off the stage and sit in the audience.'”

“There were four seats in the audience,” groans Shaznay, “but I didn’t want to sit next to anyone in the audience.”

“Why?” shrieks Mel, with a mile-wide grin plastered across her face. “Tell him why!”

“We’d got off the plane and had to rush to the…”

Nic interrupts, yelling “Shaznay had BO!” before giggling like a schoolgirl on helium.

“Shut up! Well we had to rush and I didn’t have time to get changed. And I had this top on that just… stank! I was so upset.”

“Anyway,” continues Nic, “coming off stage, she tripped over this speaker and it crashed over — live on TV!”

“All because I wanted to quickly get a seat between two of the others, not next to a member of the audience! You won’t tell anybody about that will you?”

Who me? Nah — but only if I can sit in on those press interviews you’re about to do. Yeah? Great. Fingers crossed behind my back, I follow Mel and Nic’s sister Nat into a decidedly chilly annex to watch them face the perils of European presshounds. Journalist A (the one with the leather jacket and blooo jeans) gets off to a great start by asking about the Spice Girls in ten seconds flat. Sheesh! Yesterday’s angle, pal. It’s sheer agony, an eternity in hell condensed down into 15 minutes in the company of Pepe Le Punk With an attitude problem.

“Why are you laughing?” he barks at Nat. Mel buries her head in her hands, sighing: “I feel like I’m back at school.”

“I liked your cover of ‘Lady Marmalade’ but I didn’t like ‘Under The Bridge’. The original is so good, don’t touch it!” growls Pepe, before glaring at Nat — who has wedged the toggles from her fleece in her ears in a desperate attempt to escape the madness — and ingratiating himself further with a terse: “You no want hear? Cuh! You just look silly.” Ooooooooh!!!

Journalist B fares a little better, but it’s a bloody hoot watching the girls try to keep straight faces when asked:

“So, Nellee Hooper — what was she like to work with?” Mel’s poker-faced cool is breathtaking (your correspondent has to bite his finger ’till it nearly bleeds to keep the laughter in, Nat doesn’t even try). “She was very pretty,” she deadpans. “She’s had her tits done… and she’s got a huge clitoris!”

Got the flavour yet? All Saints are — hold back the sneers — Just Like Us. Only prettier. And funnier, more talented, richer, nicer and more confident. Sorry. For some early birds, that was made pretty clear when Mel yelped a disgruntled “F*** off!” at a live-on-air Big Breakfast outside broadcast crew a couple of months ago after they made snidely suggestions about her and Peter Andre’s activities the night before.

“Hang on,” quibbles Shaznay, sat in All Saints’ dressing room later after a surprisingly enthusiastic — albeit mimed — performance of ‘Never Ever. “It shouldn’t take the words ‘f*** off’ to show people what we’re really like. I mean, I f***ing swear! My vocabulary is mainly swearwords! But I know for a fact that, at seven or eight in the morning, there’s little four-year-olds watching the telly.”

“There’s a time and a place,” agrees Nat, the eldest and by far the coolest. “You know what I mean?” Then she leans into my microphone and yells, “F*** off” —because she can.

“C*** f*** bastard!” spits Mel. She’s just realised that her mobile’s broken so she’s got a good excuse, too.

OK, well if it isn’t profanity, what is it?

“I think a lot of people listen to us because we wear baggy trousers and they think that’s cool!” suggests Mel before adding: “But I think the majority do actually listen to the music and appreciate it.” But of course. Speaking of which…

*

Fleeing the RTL complex, we peg it over to the Radio Three FM studios in the All Saints A-Team-style black, tinted-windowed van. Incidentally, take it as read that, during every journey, the girls will have to do at least two international phone interviews, eat umpteen packets of crisps and do countless Eddie Izzard impressions

(“I’m covered in bees!” being their latest catchphrase — especially for Nic, the band’s self-styled “parrot”).

Once settled in the studio, All Saints areasked to sing an a capella rendition of ‘Never Ever’ for a live radio broadcast and internet simulcast. No sweat — 30 seconds preparation and they’re away, give or take a little confusion over where to start. Nic kicks off with the hear-it-once-know-it-forever speaky bit, only to be shouted down by the others who planned to kick off from the second verse. “Right! I quit!” she teases, before remembering they’re on-air and giving in… Well, almost gracefully. But what we finally get is three minutes of the most spine-tingling performance anyone present can remember encountering — four voices perfectly harmonised singing a landmark song perfectly realised.

Out in the corridor, there’s only one thing to talk about All Saints’ first single. ‘I Know Where It’s At’ was a pristine slice of pure pop sass, no question. But ‘Never Ever’ is much, much more: everything pop music should and can be, a classic blend of TLC shimmy and Shangri-Las soul. The perfect example, in short, of why The Maker‘s been so excited about The New Pop Explosion since last November. How much do you think ‘Never Ever’ has helped you to be taken seriously?

All: “A lot. Hugely.”

Shaznay: “We just wanted to show both sides of the coin, y’know? That’s why we released ‘I Know Where It’s At First — which is more of a pop tune than ‘Never Ever’. It showed one side: quite light, very enjoyably, party, happy-go-lucky. Then we came out with ‘Never Ever*’ which was a lot more serious. See, you can get with this and you can get with that!”

Nic: “I personally always thought it was a number one track. I didn’t think about it actually going to number one, I just thought it was a top, top song.”

Nat: “And the way it got to number one! Because it took so long [nine weeks], I felt doubtful but then, when it got there, it was just unbelievable. It’s been out for 14 weeks now and it’s still going strong!”

Shaznay: “That was a really cool way for it to happen. If it had gone straight in at number one, I’d have thought it was just the kids who bought ‘I Know Where It’s At’ buying it. But this means that it wasn’t just people who were thinking about the way we looked or something. It’s people who heard it over and over until it grew on them and they went out and bought it. Going to number one was easily the best moment so far for me. Well, performing on Top Of The Pops at number one. Cos, when it happened, everyone was like; ‘Congratulations! How da you feel?’ And you’re like…”

Mel: “Blank.”

Shaznay: “But, as soon as we were on Top Of The Pops, it was like: ‘Oh, gosh. I’m feeling this’. And me and Mel burst out crying, f***ing brought the roof down with tears. I was really worried; I didn’t want them to show it on TV. But, as soon as we’d finished, I was just like; ‘Ugggggggggh’ and everyone was going: ‘Oh my God, are you all right?’ It was really funny.”

Mel: “We were just sat in the dressing room afterwards weeping. And, if anyone even touched us. we’d start wailing!”

Shaznay: “We cried bucket-loads that day.”

Mel: “And the reaction of the crowd! I couldn’t deal with it.”

Shaznay: “See, I’ve found myself crying quite a lot recently. It’s been really emotional. Some boy came up to me and said: ‘Are you gonna release ‘War Of Nerves’ as a single? That song really helped me to understand my mum dying and stuff.’ And I was like: Ugggggggggggh! Damn!

“‘War Of Nerves’ is based on the idea of what happened to Diana — it’s not about her. She went just like that and it came as a complete shock to everybody. She’s on the face of the earth one day and nobody expected her to go, next minute just gone. So it’s about dying unexpectedly. Walking out of this building and just getting run over.”

Mel: “And the whole mood of the track is so… down.”

Shaznay: “It’s about my fear of dying too quickly, about having no time to do things.”

It sounds like you think about death a lot.

Shaznay: “No, but at that time it made me think about it a hell of a lot, about not planning stuff. The whole Diana thing happened the same day we released ‘I Know Where It’s At’, so we felt really odd about it all. Then they stopped playing songs on the radio and we didn’t get played. That’s always gonna stick in our minds and it naturally set us in the mood to write a song like that. We could never have sat down and written a party track.”

Nic: “A lot of people really relate to ‘Never Ever’ too, though. When we did it at a showcase, a woman came up to me and said how she could totally understand where it was coming from. People like to be able to relate to songs, especially if they’re actually in that situation.”

‘Never Ever’ must be a karaoke classic by now. An “Our Song” for countless couples.

Nat: “Yeah, one of my friends went to this big dinner party with Rory Bremner and everybody. And they put our album on and were all singing along, saying ‘Never Ever’ was their favourite song of all time and that it was ‘their song’. Sick!”

Mel: “And we were forced to sing it at the head of our record company’s wedding. We didn’t wanna sing, we just wanted to get pissed!”

So you’re not gonna sing at Posh Spice and David Beckham’s wedding?

All: “Yeah, of course. If they ask us.”

Nat: “Of course, it’s more of a break-up song.”

*

It’s probably the fatuous and sloppy Spice Girls comparisons All Saints get landed with that have caused the tabloid press to seize upon then. Since day one, the rumours came thick and fast (with the emphasis on “thick”) about which Saint was sleeping with which pop star/actor/TV presenter. And you can see the effect it’s had on them. At first, All Saints are cagey, opening up only when they’ve had a chance to gauge your motives towards and your opinions on their tightly knit world.

So, back in their Amsterdam hotel after the radio show, Shaznay almost snarls at the thought of the red-top press, saying: “When we go home, that ain’t got jack shit to do with anybody. Those people need to go down to one of these canals and tie a brick round their necks or to their feet. It’s not even the fact of us being in the tabloids. If everything they printed was true, I wouldn’t even mind.

“It’s like, one sentence is usually true — and, nine times out of ten, that’s only your name! Sometimes they even get that wrong!”

“They’ve called me ‘Shaznay’,” sighs Nic. “They’ve called me Melanie! They’ve got pictures of Melanie and they say ‘Nicole’!”

“The worst thing about it for me,” adds Mel, “is that I’d read the gossip columns and go: ‘No! Really!!!’ But when it’s about us, it’s like…”

“Bastards!!!” they all shout together.

“Everything they write about us is
not true,” grins Nic. “Everything they
write about anybody else is…”

“True!!!”

What would be the worst thing anyone could write about you?

“Man,” answers Shaznay, “if I’ve done something bad and they put it in the paper, what can I do? But, if they put something bad in the paper and it’s not true — anything that’s not true… I’ll take anybody’s arse to court! I’m damn serious about that shit.”

*

Final port of call today is the Escape theatre and the TMF Showcase which is part telly recording and part gig, played out before several hundred hysterical fans. Sharing the stage with All Saints tonight are Louise (who’s mooching around her totally-out-of-bounds dressing room backstage) and several Dutch acts, one of which bears the intriguing name Papa Bear (feat Van Der Toorn). But, far more important than Dutch people wearing transparent, plastic bodywraps, what about those kids? Funny thought: these impressionable young things have probably spent the day listening to songs like ‘Bootie Call’, the highly lascivious second track from All Saints’ album (key line: “You can bring it on with the rough stuff”). Shocking really.

“I hope they haven’t!” gasps Shaznay. “I hope they just listen to all the appropriate ones on the album.”

“They won’t understand anyway,” says Mel, her half-French roots peeking through in her Fozzy Bear accent. “They probably just think it’s a scary song.”

“The thing is,” adds Shaznay, “It’s all good for 10-year-olds to listen to our stuff, ‘cos there’s no age limit. But we’re all 22, 23, 24 year-olds and we are gonna write songs for our age group as well. We’re not gonna sit down and write the Teletubbies album.”

Mel pauses to munch on a chocolate finger biscuit, shrugs her shoulders and grins: “At least we’re not 30 and singing about Barbie!”

Too right. Instead, tonight’s teensy set for the teeny set comprises just ‘I Know Where It’s At’ and ‘Never Ever’, the former a bewildering burst of blinding energy after an unimaginably draining day of end-to-end promotion. But, up onstage, All Saints hop and jump and point and prance like they’ve just got out of bed after a week-long lie-in. There’s a wonderfully endearing floppiness in their dancing, every bit as loose and casual as their notorious trousers and every bit as characteristic. But It’s ‘Never Ever’ which sends the crowd scatty, causing a sing-along almost loud enough to drown out the PA, right from Nic’s talky bit all the way through to Shaznay’s final, feline fade-out lines. Once the last note dies away. All Saints skip off, only to return to the stage, lean over the pit and grab the hands of as many maniacal teens as they possibly can. Problem is, the fans just won’t let go. Which isn’t really a problem at all.

Back in the dressing room, John Buckland, All Saints’ tour manager, is telling Nat off for taking risks. “You’ll get hurt doing that,” he complains, but she doesn’t look like she’s really listening.

Shaznay’s happy too, tired but buzzing after the show. “We love performing,” she beams, “we love singing on stage. We do all this promotion, we go to all these different countries and we might do one or two songs a day. We’re gonna work on getting a live band sorted in April and, when we play some real shows, we’re not gonna stand there doing dance routines like every other pop act. It’s gonna be something else entirely or we just won’t be interested.”

And that, when you think about it, is All Saints in a nutshell. On top of the world, other planets just waiting for a taste…

*

SIX THINGS YOU NEVER WOULD HAVE GUESSED ABOUT ALL SAINTS

1) Goldie has promised to beat up anybody who upsets them. Perhaps consequentially, Nat says: “I’d blatantly go out with Goldie!”

2) They’ve already said no to a sponsorship deal with Pepsi — but might possibly consider McDonalds.

3) Mel’s mad on boxing, especially Prince Naseem. Sadly, she once approached him, asking: “Do you mind if I say hello?” only to be answered: “Yes”!

4) Although the whole band are obsessed with hip hop and R&B, Nat loves Prodigy and The Verve while both Mel and Shaznay are mightily impressed by the Lo-Fidelity Allstars!

5) Mel used to sing with Dreadzone and features on their first album. She also appeared with them on Gary Crowley’s TV show The Beat singing alongside Denise Van Outen!

6) Nic once had a hot date with Huey of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals!

*

HOW TO TALK LIKE AN ALL SAINT — A BRIEF DICTIONARY

1) Beckham: (noun) Trousers that are too tight.

Mel: “We saw David Beckham in Now magazine with Posh and he had the most disgusting pair of tight jeans on. His balls were split in two!”

So there was nothing in between?

“Well, it was slightly bigger on one side and that was it. It was awful! Horrible! So he invented it, but any man who wears trousers that are either too high up or too tight around the crotch area is wearing Beckhams!”

2) Jimmies: (noun) Condoms.

As in the line from ‘Bootie Call’: “Jimmy has to ride in your pocket/Or lock him in your wallet”!

3) Jealous: (adj) Not remotely jealous.

Usually relayed with considerable amounts of sarcasm.

4) Nice Hat: (phrase) Stop ignoring me!

This phrase originates from one of the Appleton sisters’ disturbing memory of being totally blanked after praising a random lady’s headgear.

5) Save Me Some: (phrase) Disgusted exclamation following another individual’s violent, phlegmy throat-clearing.

A favourite saying of Nat’s.

6) Irrelevant (adj) Quite literal, this one.

As Mel puts it: “‘Cos everything is!”

© Robin BresnarkMelody Maker, 7 February 1998

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