The other day I was winding down after work, watching tea-time quiz show Pointless (now with 100% less Richard Osman), when I heard guest host, actor Stephen Mangan, mention something which sounded strangely familiar.
You’ll recognise Mangan if not from his name then perhaps from one of his many stints guest-hosting Have I Got News For You, or from appearing in such comedies as Green Wing, Nathan Barley or Episodes, or as the voice of the eponymous hero in Postman Pat: The Movie, or in TV dramas like The Split, or films like Billy Elliott or Rush, or, most likely, for being on the receiving end, albeit unaware that he was, of this classic bit of Partridge:
(And yes, you’re right, all of that was just an excuse to post a clip of North Norfolk’s finest.)
Anyway, the strangely familiar thing that I heard him say was along the lines of: “In 2020, The Guardian newspaper printed a list of what they considered to be the greatest 100 singles to reach the #1 position in the UK charts. Please name any of the artists which featured on the list, trying to choose ones which the fewest of our audience of 100 people remembered.”
Wait a minute, I thought: I used to write a series on exactly this subject, which I would preface with the words: This is the series where I feature The Guardian’s idea of the 100 best UK #1s ever, and we see what I have to say about them (which usually isn’t much, to be honest).
This will be a doddle, I also thought, before being totally baffled when I didn’t remember writing about any of the songs mentioned. And that was because I hadn’t written one since June this year, and in fact had only gotten as far as #90 in the countdown, despite having started the series back in November 2020.
When I last bothered to write one of these, I mentioned that I had deliberately not checked further on the list to see what awaited me, and the subject’s appearance on Pointless had somewhat scuppered that for me. But every cloud has a silver lining: I now know that I can continue safe in the knowledge that I won’t be having to feature anything by Ed Sheeran in this series.
So, what did The Guardian have to say about the record which had reached the giddy heights of #89 in their chart? This:
“Producer Richard X gets a lot of credit for the shuddering magnitude of invention behind the Sugababes’ debut UK No 1 – the first legit single of the 2000s bootleg wave, bringing together Adina Howard and Tubeway Army – but not all of it. The newly minted trio of Mutya, Keisha and Heidi pull off a more convincing “I’m grown now” transition than any of their American pop peers, thanks to the terrifying nonchalance innate to British teenage girls. It’s got a classic belting “may-ee!” (that’s “me” in millennial pop terms) and without it, you wouldn’t have Sound of the Underground – or, even, possibly, whisper it, Toxic.”
They, speak, of course, of this:
I’m not sure I follow the argument that without this record there wouldn’t be a Sound of the Underground – the idea of manufactured female pop groups was hardly a new idea when Sugababes appeared on the scene – and I honestly can’t see any link at all between Freak… and Toxic, other then the gender of the performer(s).
I’d be gobsmacked if neither of those records feature later on in the countdown, so we’ll return to this theory then (if I remember and if I get that far, of course).
What I would say is that Sugababes are possibly my second favourite all-female pop group, after the aforementioned Girls Aloud, and probably vying for second place with Bananarama.
And it always annoys me when they’re subject to very predictable jokes about the ever-evolving line-up (which, hands up, I’ve been guilty of myself); they’re truly the Trigger’s broom of the pop world:
But I digress: what of this mention of Freak… being “…the first legit single of the 2000s bootleg wave….”? That “…2000s bootleg wave…” is The Guardian’s way of saying “mash-ups”, which for those of you unfamiliar with either terminologies is where the music from one song has the lyrical part of another laid on top of it, thereby creating – hey presto! – a completely new song. Think sampling taken to the nth degree.
These were immensely popular at the start of the century, as a billion bedroom DJs produced their own. Barely a week would go by without another one where Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On was suddenly backed by the theme tune to Pebble Mll at One, or something equally ridiculous, and to be fair, they were a lot of fun, for a while. Still are when you stumble upon a decent one.
Perhaps it was the musical snob in me that disliked ones where a sample of the lyrics from the featured music also briefly appeared; this seemed to me to be at best a case of giving the listener a helping hand in identifying both featured tunes, or at worst the mixer wanting to show off (“Look at what I did!”, “Yes, we get it, very clever!”).
But Sugababes manage to dodge this particular bullet by keeping the lyrics of Adina Howard’s original…:
…entirely seperate from the mechanical mumblings of Gary Numan on Tubeway Army’s classic:
Tubeway Army – Are ‘Friends’ Electric?
But returning to that Guardian description, and the reference to the Sugababes’ Freak… being “…the first legit single of the 2000s bootleg wave“; the word ‘legit’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting there, since surely the credit for the first mash-up single to go overground must go to Freelance Hellraiser’s A Stroke of Genius, which combined the music from The Strokes’ track Hard To Explain with Christina Aguilera’s pop hit Genie in a Bottle“. It was met with a ‘cease and desist’ order from the record label which housed both Aguilera and The Strokes, RCA:
The Freelance Hellraiser – A Stroke of Genius
A Stroke of Genius came out in 2001 and didn’t chart (probably due to that ‘cease and desist’ order); Sugababes’ Freak Like Me was released in 2002. See? It’s all about that word “legit”.
And of course, I’ve written all of this without even mentioning the producer behind Freak…, on Richard X; but it’s getting kinda late now and I’ve banged on for quite long enough, so I’ll revisit him another time.
All of which rather implies that I don’t have much time for the record at #89, and that would be incorrect, for I think it’s a ruddy marvellous tune which, depending on what lies ahead of us, probably should be placed higher than this lowly position.
PS – Despite my confusion, I still got all of the answers on that round of Pointless.