THEY’VE BEEN on the verge of it before, but this time it looks as though All Saints are finally splitting up. Caroline Sullivan laments the passing of a band which, despite the tensions, never lost its credibility.
THE TITLE of the current All Saints album, Saints & Sinners, could describe the two factions of the band: saintly Shaznay Lewis and Mel Blatt, whose idea of a frolic is staying in and writing a song, and the bad Appleton sisters, who would turn up at the opening of an envelope, provided the envelope had a free bar. The opposing sides have locked horns before, with one or other member storming out in high dudgeon but always returning before complete meltdown.This time, though, the foursome are in “crisis talks”, which evokes visions of the Appletons louchely sipping cocktails as Lewis and Blatt wag schoolmarmish fingers. The official word is that it’s business as usual, but someone close to the group says, “I think this time there are internal differences that are beyond sorting out.”
Which is really too bad. All Saints were the girl group’s girl group, nocturnal sensualists in a world of shrill stage-school airheads. They wrote their own material (or rather Lewis did, and her proportionately heftier pay cheques were reputedly a source of contention) and, unusually, the material got better as they went along. ‘Pure Shores’ was the second-biggest-selling single of 2000, and is almost unique among recent pop songs in still being listenable a year later.
They had the sense to enlist William Orbit’s production skills for Saints & Sinners, and he worked his ambient tomfoolery as successfully as he did on Madonna’s career-saving album Ray of Light. (By contrast, the Spice Girls hired American producer Rodney Jerkins, whose attempt to give them R ‘n’ B credibility was embarrassingly misguided.)
Their other number one single of last year, ‘Black Coffee’, was even better than ‘Pure Shores’ in its beguiling treatment of a domestic scenario. “Brush your teeth, pour yourself a cup of black coffee,” they crooned, in easily the most alluring depiction of a bleary-eyed morning routine ever recorded. Refusing to milk their two albums, they put out only a handful of singles, each as shimmery as the last.
The others were the slow-burning debut ‘I Know Where it’s At’, the 1m-selling ‘Never Ever’, which features an Appleton pleading, “A few questions I need to know” (and a few answers she needs to ask, presumably), the glorious Red Hot Chili Peppers cover ‘Under the Bridge’, and the ones nobody remembers: ‘Bootie Call’ and ‘War of Nerves’.
Best not to get into their new one, ‘All Hooked Up’, wherein the girls coo, “I know that you want a piece of mah ass” under the misapprehension that they’re Mary J Blige. Shaznay amplifies the silliness by adding, “Why’s this guy all up in my ass?”, which doesn’t make her sound like anything but an English girl trying to do ghetto-fab.
Little missteps aside, they never lost their credibility. You may not agree with me that their version of ‘Under the Bridge’ was as touching in its own way as the Chili Peppers’, but you probably don’t hate it. It’s hard to find anyone who actively dislikes All Saints; Nicole and Natalie’s string of celebrity boyfriends and Met Bar antics roused contempt, but the group’s identity was remarkably untarnished.
Their appeal went across the board, from teenage girls to Elle-reading twentysomethings (Nicole and her latest boything, Liam Gallagher, were on last month’s cover) to older men who didn’t mind at all when the girls’ low-slung combat pants drooped dangerously southward.
They achieved the cross-generational success that eluded the Spice Girls simply by being themselves. Like the Spices, each Saint was a personality archetype – earth-mother Mel (whose reluctance to leave her baby, Lilyella, at home forced the cancellation of a Far East tour in November), party girls Nicole and Natalie and musicianly Shaznay, who wrote ‘Pure Shores’ while the other three were away making Dave Stewart’s flop film Honest.
They were perfectly imperfect – pretty rather than stunning, dishevelled rather than groomed, inclined to boast, as Mel once did, “I farted and told my boyfriend the baby did it.” Posh Spice, of course, would die before compromising her brittle image in such a human way.
With such different personalities in the mix, the group equilibrium was always compromised. Nicole’s pregnancy, which came about after she’d been dating Gallagher for a whole month, can’t have helped. Blatt has commented that being a working mother creates divided loyalties, and perhaps the split is the inevitable consequence. “A lot of the problems are down to Mel’s inability to commit of late,” says the insider. “Nicole and Natalie were more and more frustrated because they felt she wasn’t holding up her end.”
The future? I predict that Lewis will prosper as a songwriter, perhaps in a backroom role that will enable her to step out of the spotlight she says she hates. Blatt will raise a brood of children and become a session singer during term time, as long as she can be home for the school run.
Nicole and Liam will celebrate the birth of baby McCartney, then realise they have nothing in common, by which time Billie Piper will be old enough to become his next blonde bit. Natalie will follow the Princess Margaret road to dissipation, lounging around in a Marlboro Light fug with minor TV presenters on Caribbean islands.
It’s a pity they’ve split up. Any chance they could take Atomic Kitten with them?
© Caroline Sullivan, The Guardian, 10 January 2001