And finally we have lift-off. Yes, ‘Never Ever’ may have taken its time getting there, but Britain’s finest all-girl band have hit Number One, and they’re loving it
THE MOET is flowing in the London Records boardroom. Nicole Appleton takes a swig from a fluted glass while her All Saints bandmates — sister Natalie, Melanie Blatt and Shaznay Lewis — make do with plastic cups. The band, a gaggle of record company staff and a couple of mates are expectantly eyeing a TV screen at the far end of the room.
The champagne is to help celebrate the fact that All Saints’ second single, ‘Never Ever’, has today sold its millionth copy. It’s also Number One: All Saints are sitting pretty at the top of the charts, this week’s biggest band in Britain. Yet none of them seem particularly bothered. Maybe Number One is just one number too many after six months of continually surpassed expectations and sales figures. Mel speaks for the band when she maintains that “It doesn’t make any sense in my head at all. Only pop stars or people that’re famous get to Number One!”
Or maybe the group’s lack of effusiveness is down to the immediate past: an hour ago they were round the corner from their company’s Hammersmith offices, recording a version of the chart-topper for Chris Evans’ TFI Friday. After the briefest of wardrobe changes and a few autographs, they’re in the unlikely position of being able to watch themselves on “live” TV. And despite the number of times they’ve found themselves under the spotlight lately, there’s a palpable sense of unease in the room.
“That was a really difficult audience,” says Blatt quietly. “Nearly all men — hardly any girls at all.” A slight figure enveloped by her coat, her body language suggests things haven’t gone well.
The other subdued Saints nod. “Did you hear that guy booing just before we started?” asks a slightly incredulous Lewis, shaking her head. From the way they look you sense they must’ve blown it — duff notes, lost voices, embarrassing mis-cues, or a devilish combination of all three.
The mood lightens with the appearance of Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant — his interview immediately precedes All Saints’ performance, and there’s an edgy excitement in the air as their time gets closer. Tennant sings a snatch of PSB’s ‘Suburbia’, and All Saints belt it out along with him, Natalie and Nicole waving their arms in the air and grinning.
But the quiet and the tension returns as the cameras zoom in on the stage. Shaznay bites her bottom lip as she stares fixedly at the TV, looking like she’s trying to prepare herself for some sort of painful public humiliation. Mel manages to look simultaneously anxious and uninterested, while the Appleton sisters seem more relaxed but just as attentive.
To fit in with the show’s time constraints, the song’s distinctive spoken-word intro has been cut, so they’re straight in. Here we go…
For “overnight sensations”, All Saints have certainly put in some work. Lewis and Blatt met as teenagers at a studio in west London’s All Saints Road. Shaznay was working with little-known old school hip-hop artist Rodney C, doing backing vocals in return for free studio time. Mel, meanwhile, was simply trying to learn all she could.
“I was there for two years,” she remembers, “and what I used to do — it’s completely sad, but that’s not the point! — is I’d just sit on the couch and listen, and hear what was going on. I wouldn’t ask for anything, I wasn’t being paid, I was just making tea. I was nothing. Eventually I did backing vocals for people, but that was it for two years.”
Shaznay and Mel formed All Saints with a third member, Simone Rainford, and signed to ZTT, the label headed by pop production’s Mr Sheen, former Buggle Trevor Horn. This unhappy marriage spawned a single that failed to trouble the chaps at Gallup. Rainford left, the group got dropped and Blatt and Lewis went back to the drawing board.
Armed with some cracking songs, stacks of self-belief and the desire to be able to eat better food (“At that time they were living on Pot Noodles,” Natalie recalls), the duo just needed another voice before they could start again. Then Blatt ran into Nicole Appleton, a childhood friend from when they’d both attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School (whose alumni include Game On star Samantha Janus, Spice Girl Emma Bunton and EastEnder Daniella Westbrook). Nic, Canadian born to English parents, had just returned to London after several years in upstate New York. She auditioned there and then, in the bathroom of a cafe, eventually joining the group along with older sister Natalie.
The line-up settled, All Saints began to develop their own sound. Writing songs in a hip-hop manner, building tracks from drum samples and basslines, then developing melodies and structures later, all four brought different influences to bear on the musical aesthetic. Lewis and Blatt hadn’t spent all that time hanging round the studio for nothing, and while Shaznay’s songwriting was agreed to more or less define the sound of the band, melding their joint love of hip-hop to some classic pop melodies, all four were heavily involved.
They recorded a bunch of demos, which eventually got passed, as Nicole puts it, “through a friend of a friend of a friend to our present manager.” This manager, John Benson, immediately offered them help in finding a deal. Electing to go for London Records, after it became apparent that the other labels who were interested wanted to turn them into the next Spice Girls, the band swiftly recorded an album’s worth of material. First single, ‘I Know Where It’s At’, hit Number Four in September.
An irresistible slice of sussed hip-pop, ‘I Know Where It’s At’ is as “now” as pop music gets. Listening to it is like visiting Cobra Sports in Brixton: you can hear the American rap and swingbeat in the background, but in front of you there’s this super-cool wonderland, full of loads of amazing stuff that seems not so much like the street fashion of today as the neoteric style of next month.
‘Never Ever’ followed a few weeks later. Like ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ and Robbie Williams’ Angels’, it’s become that rarest of things — a “proper” hit, leisurely climbing the chart rather than peaking in the first week then sinking quicker than if it had lead for a bassline. Giving a nod to the past and a wink to the present, while staying focused on the very near future, ‘Never Ever’ was written during All Saints’ label-less years and its measured sophistication is in marked contrast to the frustrations that surrounded its writing.
So far, so unremarkable. A band form, get signed and get fucked over, regroup, rethink, start again and hit paydirt. A veritable ’90s Fab Four, if you like, right down to the Pete Best figure. It’s a tale not dissimilar to the brief histories of any number of bands, but there’s one self-evident factor that complicates the All Saints saga: they’re four attractive women in their early 20s.
Of the friends and colleagues VOX spoke to while writing this piece, practically every one either asked whether All Saints had “got away with it” in interview, or wanted to know which one of them we fancied most. The notion that the band and their music might be inherently interesting in a way unrelated to sexuality was clearly unthinkable.
We live in a society that can’t accept that a woman can be both attractive and successful without either having used her sexuality to get where she is, or owing it all to an invariably male svengali who is the real “brains” behind her achievements. The rock business finds it a little easier dealing with what it habitually, and patronisingly, labels “strong women” — the likes of PJ Harvey, Ani DiFranco or Janis Joplin — where it seems, to the same subliminally sexist mindset, unlikely that the individual’s sexual allure has assisted their career. These women — always, incidentally, rock singers, never pop stars — are lauded only if they stick to the strictly delineated margins of expected subject matter. If they so much as dare to discuss their own sexuality, their emotional lives and loves, rather than provide a male-dominated industry with the politically correct safety valve of a raging feminist in its midst, their work becomes “problematic”, “confusing” and marginalised.
Listen to Mel talking about the expectations of the media and the audience: “There’s some things we can’t do just because it’s not… because we’re four girls. For instance, it’s always a struggle if we don’t wanna wear nice clothes. Every time I come in and I’m in my tracksuit and not doing anything to my hair and just putting a bit of blusher on, I’m frowned upon for not making an effort. Whereas if I was Shaun Ryder it wouldn’t matter. Sometimes I wish I was Shaun Ryder!”
Bloody hell — surely it can’t be that bad.
All Saints, then. Four sexy young women who make pop music. Perhaps it isn’t so simple after all.
It maysound clichéd, but it’s an inescapable fact: the first thing that strikes you about the Top Of The Pops studio is how small it is. All those receding angles and cavernous patches of darkness you see on the telly are a sort of illusion. In a room not much bigger than a typical club-type live music venue, four stages dominate. A flock of cameras hover.
On one of the stages, All Saints are rehearsing ‘Never Ever’. The main point of the run-through is to make sure the camera angles are right, and that the band can hear what they’re doing so they can sing in tune. On a screen behind them, the faces of the four vocalists are projected: they’ve been filmed singing the track, and what will prove to be a futile attempt to synchronise the video with the live performance is taking place. While Shaznay sings, Nicole’s lips move behind her. Weird. VOX retires to a quiet corridor for the inevitable wait.
In the week that they’re Number One, you simply have to wait for All Saints. Two major TV appearances aren’t the half of it: as well as VOX, they fit interviews and photographs for the BBC’s TOTP magazine and a make-up/beauty magazine into the afternoon. Later on, when they’re supposed to be relaxing at a West End party, they’re photographed and spoken to for the weekend’s tabloids. On Saturday, at some unearthly hour of the morning, they’ll be whisked off to the south of France to film a slot for a prestigious chat show, and Sunday… well, Sunday’s schedule is wall-to-wall interviews from 8am to 11pm, some on-camera, some over meals. In Germany.
The band’s PR, in a typical half-hour, will happily confirm interviews for a men’s monthly, a Scottish Sunday supplement, a hugely popular teen magazine and a London-based entertainments guide — combined circulation over 750,000 — but just not now, OK? Their diary for the last week of January reads like this: Monday — Denmark, Tuesday — Norway, Wednesday — Holland, Thursday — Spain, Friday — Portugal.
Every now and again, somebody interesting wanders by. Look! Here comes Robbie Williams, massive headphones clamped to the sides of his head, a bemused half-smile on his face as his chaperone escorts him to his dressing room. Behind you! It’s TOTP presenter Jayne Middlemiss interviewing a couple of members of Rialto for a Radio 1 show. And, damn! There go All Saints, off upstairs for an eternity in make-up. Oh well — more time to think about their music.
If you’re not listening carefully, much of All Saints’ eponymous album sounds a bit like swingbeat, the increasingly weary, bastard son of hip-hop and R&B. But if you spend some time with it and pay a bit more attention, you can hear music that’s subtly, yet definitively British, and completely of its time.
All Saints simply couldn’t have existed anywhere, or any when, else. London is one of the most diverse, culturally rich cities on the face of the planet, partially because it’s comparatively easy and acceptable for everyone to mix. People of All Saints’ diverse backgrounds — as well as the Canadian/American/English Appletons, Mel spent several years in France and Shaznay’s parents are from Jamaica and Barbados — would probably never have met anywhere else.
“Now that I’ve travelled a lot, I do think our music could only have come from here,” agrees Mel in rapid, staccato phrases, drawing deep on a Silk Cut in one of Elstree’s smoking rooms. “A lot of people say England is very racist, but now I don’t agree with that — it seems a very tolerant country compared to a lot of other places.”
“We don’t want to go down that route when you cater for people who like just one type of music,” Shaznay says, the burning need to explain herself glowing behind her eyes. “I just thought it’d be kinda cool to put all those influences in. I’ll give you an example. I like Ocean Colour Scene, and I could never figure out why out of all these rock bands I prefer them over the rest. Then we had a dressing room next door to them down here at Top Of The Pops, and they played a whole album of Wu-Tang Clan. I just couldn’t figure it out until then. They’re doing rock, but if that’s what they’re listening to then some of that influence must be coming through. And I was like: ‘OK, even though their music is rock, is that an influence to them? Maybe I can hear something in there that other people can’t, something that’s from that influence.’ And that’s what I wanted to do, what we wanted to do with our music.”
So, QED, All Saints are Britpop incarnate. At least it’s one similarity they have to the group whose pre-eminence has defined almost all of the media reaction to them. They’re forever being lazily compared to the Spice Girls, largely because they’re all women, possibly also because both groups have a Mel B. In an off-the-cuff remark she now regrets, Mel Blatt said that if the Spice Girls “ever call themselves ‘artists’, I’ll kill myself”, and while it’s tempting to see All Saints as the Anti-Spice, they really are worlds apart. Although the SG’s ‘Say You’ll Be There’ steals from the LA G-funk hip-hop style, most of their music is hard to link to a place and a time: they’re an international musical currency, like Oasis, linked with Britain more for waving the flag than for anything inherently English in their music.
Attitude-wise, too, the two groups share little common ground. The pseudo-feminism of the Girl Power rangers’ agenda has been made to look like so much bluster of late. All Saints don’t need any of that. In answer to the many queries, yes, they do “get away with it” in interviews. This is because they’re not acting out any sort of pose. As even the most small-minded indie pedant would have to concur, they are indisputably 4 Real. They’re mates first and foremost, and form the sort of unit that the most believable music comes from. Just compare the thrust of those debut singles: “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want”, and “If you want to have a good time, I know where it’s at”. As The Verve — one of All Saints’ favourite bands — would say: Come on.
Clothing and make-up finally sorted, Shaznay and Mel are lining up for VOX photographs before recording their TOTP slot. Mel, quite plainly, is exhausted.
“That was the biggest slap in the face to me,” she admits, managing to remain effusive despite the sort of week that’d see lesser mortals institutionalised. “I never knew you had to work so hard at this.” She sits slumped behind the door of a dressing room staring vacantly into the middle distance, while Shaznay chats as the film is changed. When the possibility of the band appearing on the new TV show hosted by Arsenal footballer Ian Wright is mentioned, Lewis looks mortified. It’s not the reaction one would expect from a former member of Arsenal Ladies’ football team.
“I’m a Tottenham fan!” she confesses sheepishly, adding: “I never bothered going to practice and I only played in about three matches. All they ever said was just: ‘Go out there and WIN!!!’ I don’t know anything about football — what position should I tell him I played?”
Well, that’s an easy one. Forward, obviously.
Apart from the way they look, another aspect of All Saints that has made them darlings of the tabloids is the occasional lyrical preoccupation with sex. Take ‘Booty Call’, where Shaznay writes about being able to phone someone up at 2am when you’ve got one thing on your mind, without having to worry about all of that commitment stuff. Despite carrying a subtly coded safe-sex message, it sits uneasily among the other songs of love lost and relationships thwarted. If you’re capable of the depth of feeling Shaznay normally writes about, you’re going to find a ‘Booty Call’ relationship pretty crap, aren’t you?
“It can be very crap, very crap,” she agrees. “It depends on what you’re looking for in the other person. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t make a habit of booty calls! But that one time it was cool, ‘cos we were both mutual on it. It was actually a funny thing, we both thought we were crazy because we could do that with each other. Very funny!
“I think me starting to write about all that kinky stuff,” she continues by way of explanation, “is just me coming out of a long relationship, when for four years I would practically vomit if another man so much as spoke to me because I was so in love with this one person. That was my first boyfriend, and then not being involved with anybody when I came out of that relationship took courage, and it was a big deal for me to mix and mingle with other people. And then I did, and that was when all that was written, and I was: ‘Ooh!'”
It’s Nicole and Natalie, though, who really felt the full ferocity of the press. In consecutive weeks in December, the News Of The World ran “kiss and tell” stories about each sister. The first “revealed” — not that she was hiding it — that Natalie has an estranged husband and a child, the second detailed Nicole’s part in a love triangle. Both stem from events some years ago, and both hurt. But the Appletons are refusing to let it get to them.
“You know,” Nicole opines, “I’ve hung around people it’s happened to, and it’s true when they say it’ll be tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper. I don’t really care.”
“Everybody wants a piece of you,” Natalie suggests, trying to explain why someone you were so close to would want to make money out of you in such a callous manner.
“They think ‘cos they know you they deserve a bit [of your success] too. I just think: ‘You sorry-ass git — go and do something for yourself.’ It hurt me at first, but I’d done nothing wrong and it made me look like the winner in the end. I never hurt anybody, so say what you want — make your money, you losers.”
Spoken as one would expect from someone who’s worked hard at their own self-improvement, rather than participate in mass-media manipulation.
“It happens to every band that comes out, to footballers, soap stars…,” reckons Nicole, reasonable to a fault. “We all expected something, I suppose I just didn’t expect it so soon. And I did get upset…”
“At the end of the day,” says Shaznay, who admits that she doesn’t go out much any more because of the group’s tabloid coverage, “if you knew your friend had a child or had been involved with two brothers or anything like that, you wouldn’t treat it like it was such a big thing because it totally is not — it’s life. At least every tenth person has had something happen like that, has a child or whatever. No big deal. Putting it in the paper is just nasty.”
The small but determinedly up-fer-it audience, predominantly teenage girls, are crowded round the front of the long stage. All Saints are in the middle of ‘Never Ever’ and the group’s evident exhaustion has been completely dispelled.
“We’ve always got some fans that come every time we’re on Top Of The Pops and stand right in the front and that makes us fuckin’ ecstatic!” Mel had beamed earlier. “We can just give the song to them.”
Like the best rock groups, All Saints feed off the energy of their audience: they nail the track first take.
The song that will make Lewis’ reputation as a pop writer is rooted in the breakdown of her first true love affair. But what the million-plus buyers of ‘Never Ever’ want to know is, did the cad answer those questions, make that phone call or send that letter?
“Let me think…” Shaznay ponders, briefly. “I never got the letter, but he phoned me up. I got to know some of it, but it’s very confusing ‘cos at the end of the day you still kind of blame each other.” And she laughs a little — not much, but maybe just enough.
Back on the screen in the London Records’ boardroom some 21 hours later, That Song breezes by on TFI, as familiar and affecting as ever. But at the end there’s a twist: the group hammer through a final chorus a cappella,with a few new harmony lines thrown in. This is clearly the bit they’ve been worrying about. It’s only one chorus, but this time there’s no backing, no protection; no hiding place and no safety net. Will they vindicate themselves, or will they fuck it all up? You don’t really need to ask.
With searing new vocal twists intertwining, the sense of the four voices really going for it turns this into a brief quadruple-headed Diva Moment. Their high-wire act has worked like a dream. Suddenly the tension’s dispelled, they’re whooping and cheering, hugging each other, ecstatic.
Within seconds Shaznay’s mobile phone twitters into life.
“Does it feel good?” she says, repeating the question, grinning. “Does it feel good? Man, I’m flyin‘!”
All Saints — The Facts
1. ‘Never Ever’ sold more records before reaching Number One — 770,000 — than any single in chart history.
- 2. It sold more copies when it was Number Two than it did a week later at Number One.
- 3. All Saints’ producer, Kay-G, used to be in British hip-hop band Outlaw Posse.
- 4. Shaznay performed with the group Double Trouble at Hammersmith Palais in 1992, supporting rap heavyweights Pete Rock & GL Smooth.
- 5. In her early teens Natalie used to sing standards at a country club hotel in the Catskill mountains.
- 6. ‘Never Ever’ producer Cameron McVey is married to another noted musical chronicler of W11, Neneh Cherry.
- 7. They finally get to go on holiday in April…
- 8. …but when they get back they’re doing their first tour.
9. ‘Never Ever’ has been shown on TOTP nine times.
10. The band don’t much like the cover of their album. “What we wanted to do originally was just photocopy parts of our bodies and stick it on the front,” says Nicole. “We were sat on the photocopy machine, shoving our boobs on it,Shaznay photocopied her teeth when she had her brace in, and we put ’em all together and it looked like it would be a cool album cover. I don’t think we pushed it enough. But it might be an idea for the next one — who knows?”
© Angus Batey, Vox, March 1998