SUDDENLY I’M FREEZING
"Chemistry" by Girls Aloud
"She was preserved in freshness. I couldn’t touch her. I couldn’t reach through the ice. She floated in it mildly, she was adrift, far off, in some private place. Surprised, and dreaming, with wide-open eyes. She couldn’t see me. Ice gleamed on her like moonlight.
‘The ice wanted to prevent me. It talked: no no no no."
(Michèle Roberts, Flesh & Blood: Virago Press, 1994; chapter 10)
They stare at us on the cover, icy, as if from under a placid, inescapable sheet; there is a little bewilderment, a hint of indifference, a smouldering hatred, a faint trace of ridicule. The unasked question is: "What are you doing here?" Within their staring lies the germination of the bemused but kindly look which Beatrice would first have given to Benedick. Within their glancing lies also, and simultaneously, the contempt of self-contemptuous singletons, lurking in West London wine bars to give their managers and creditors the slip (towards the record’s climax they will sing of "Chelsea chicks" drinking white wine spritzers). "Do you know me?" will be the central question, closely pursued by the befuddled puzzlement of "Do you love me?" And what sort of love is required or desired? Must we induce premature deaths by never falling below the speed required by the market, or decide to slow down and thus ensure the market’s final irrelevance? What do we really, really want?
The third Girls Aloud album was always expected to be the crowning glory of the unexpected late 2005 renaissance of New Pop Mark II; this generation’s Lexicon Of Love, the Statement which simultaneously sums everything up and then makes everything else redundant. The delicious irony of a group set up by a television programme whose subtextual remit was to delete the last half-century of pop, to take everything back to a cosy, compliant, agreeable 1954 of Dickie Valentine and Alma Cogan, and then turning the tables with the help of the operatives Xenomania whose supratextual remit was to give birth to everything that New Pop had promised a generation previously, such that they snatched sex pop, colour pop, punctumised pop, from the jaws of careful, remains potent.
Yet Chemistry exceeds any superficial remit, for it is very consciously Xenomania’s most ambitious work to date – as happened with Stock/Aitken/Waterman and Mel and Kim, Higgins and co. seem to be inspired by GA to pull out all of the extra stops available to them, as well as sneakily tugging at a few unavailable stops. In fact it is the bastard niece of Lexicon Of Love and A Grand Don’t Come For Free; an extended meditation on the uselessness of inverted commas when it comes to "love" (and think about inverted commas around "come" as well) constructed as a concept album with a storyline, complete with alternative endings.
Then again, do we know Girls Aloud as anything other than the collective Girls Aloud, just as Martin Fry and Mike Skinner were the collective ABC and Streets? They appear in the CD booklet on first name terms only, none of them quite smiling at the camera (observe the giveaway Freudian slip in Cheryl Tweedy’s dedication to Xenomania – "an inspiration not only 2 me but I’m sure 2 any aspirin song writers"). Only one track, "It’s Magic," credits GA as contributory composers, and even then, as "Girls Aloud" only. Yet this is not the anticipated scenario of Men telling Women What To Think – Xenomania’s Miranda Cooper has taken particular care to claim sole responsibility for the album’s lyrics, and furthermore, the topics and approaches were only arrived at following detailed and intense discussion with the Girls.
When you hear the opening whispered fusillade of "It’s all about the hell of it/It’s all about the game/Don’t ask me to say my name/Don’t ask me to share my fame" you realise that you’re immediately being pitched into an even less hospitable climate than the previous two GA albums (which weren’t exactly enticing you to come on a-their house, either). But the shocking "Intro" is the album’s shocking denouement; as with the first 30 seconds of Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate or the jitterbugging opening titles of Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, if you miss it you miss the entire record’s point. "You took the bait, now you’re looking like a fool/Don’t ask us to break the rules" is a couplet one would expect from John Lydon – and a listen to "Rabbit Song," the obligatory new track on the latter’s Best Of British £1 Notes compilation, betrays a surprising or unsurprising musical/rhythmic overlap with "Intro."
Perhaps the least user-friendly intro to a mainstream pop record likely to be heard for some while (because we expect Eminem to blow our brains out three seconds into any given track one), it quickly squats to a halt. An alarm clock rings (so much more potently, because so much more subtly, than at the end of track one of the current Madonna album), there are some faraway crowd noises and suddenly it’s a Dolly Mixtures 1982 A-side produced by Tony Mansfield.
"Models" is astonishing because, even though you were expecting Girls Aloud and Xenomania to start thinking about resurrecting the ethos of the Mo-Dettes or Girls At Our Best! in 2005, you’re amazed that they actually did something about it and went through with it (though maybe Xenomania have their eye on the Pipettes).
Indeed, GA’s monumental monotone FUCK YOU vocals are so captivating that one almost regrets it when individual voices come through more recognisably in the verses (but don’t ask me to say their names). It does set the tone for the album’s story, though, with its uncommitted, too-rich/spoiled boyfriend ("Why don’t you call? You’ve got my number and it’s driving me crazy!") who is soon mocked in a brief mock-Sloaney mid-section ("Darling, we’re a fashion, don’t you know?"). "You get your kicks like flyster shit," complains one GA before observing that his own "kicks" leave her "torpid and cold." The nightmare reverse of this song’s scenario will be (re)visited in track ten.
Then there is "Biology." In an age of instant hits/shit, where The Hook and The Point are by economic necessity thrust upfront immediately afront one’s face to engage their instant attention (and thus is the magic of pop music degraded further to the aesthetic level of a mugger’s flick knife), how utterly refreshing to meet a pop single which takes its time to reveal its ingredients, including the chorus, which does not as such appear until well after two minutes into the song – and indeed the song’s structure mirrors exactly the theme of the girl getting "her head in the shade," for it is about hiding from threats, or meeting and trumping them with unexpectedly greater threats of your own.
The song begins almost as a mockery of Marquee blokey blues-rock – a twelve-year-old singing along to her dad’s Bad Company record (it's actually a sampled Animals track)? – as the singer turns the stock Plant/Rodgers/Marriott mannerisms and dismantles them by the act of merely reversing them. "Why don’t you CLOTHE me FEED me SAY you NEED ME without wicked GAMES? Come on and CALL me HELP me SAY you LOVE ME and not my dirty BRAIN."
Not only does that act as a virtual manifesto for courtly love, but we also have to take the possible view that this is Girls Aloud taking the piss out of The Bloke’s pleading. Possibly because they have to – for when the song drifts into more familiar 1980 synthpop territory the voices become multiple and the emotions turn darker. The "closer" section, where the music, the beat, the man – the rape? – are making a seemingly unstoppable advent on the progenitor – is extremely troubling, and this in turn is followed up by the stern chorale of "You give it up…and then they take it away/A girl’s got to zip it up and get her head in the shade." No means no, Zero Tolerance – "We’re gonna call it a prophesy!" – but when the clouds part for the chorus finally to reveal itself, the ambivalence is made explicit. "You can’t mistake our biology!" the lead GA warns as the others chant, "The way that we walk. The way that we talk. It’s there in our thoughts…So easily caught" (which latter immediately raises the spectre of Michael Hordern in the film of Up Pompeii! – "My daughter is chaste." Frankie Howerd: "And so easily caught"). They do not sing it in the frame of an invitation to party.
The opening "Whatcha Gonna Do About It" staccato jerk riffing reappears for one final time (think also "Fit But You Know It" as seen from the opposite angle) but the words have vanished.
Sex, if there is to be any, will be strictly on GA’s own terms. Thus "Wild Horses"*
(*one could argue that Chemistry is an extended attempt by Xenomania to de-masculinise pop – all these signifiers of titles, "Whole Lotta History," "No Regrets," "Models," "Wild Horses," "Long Hot Summer," "Swinging London Town," named after buildings long since demolished)
begins with a bizarre roundelay of an intro which sounds as though it’s escaped from the Peter Wyngarde album ("Poor boy Peter [Wyngarde? Andre? Doherty?] didn’t know how to claim his miracle/Lost his way/Cost him dearly like his dad") before making mincemeat of the Stones ("Woo woo!") as they send their inadequate Other packing, again turning his own clichés against him ("Take your lazy dog with you/Your train is running late and overdue") atop a bizarre electro-bluegrass backing over which GA now begin to deliver a rap which isn’t as sprightly as they make it sound. "I was trying to sedate him, trying not to blow/I was trying not to hate him – wouldn’t you know." It does indeed sound like Daphne and Celeste grown up ("The rings on his fingers were as false as the kisses he gave") but again the sung verses take the song into a darker dimension ("Took my time, thought I’d be safe," followed by a terrible, inscrutable, elongated wail of "oh!"). Fucking so bad it feels like rape.
And then there is "See The Day," the first of three occasions on Chemistry when the voice is left alone (relatively speaking) to own up and admit vulnerability. Indeed the lead vocal (Cheryl?) and Xenomania’s arrangement bring out the song’s troubled compassion as fully as its author, Dee C Lee, did on her original recording in 1985. Back then I was prevented from accessing the song’s real nature by the glutinous Real Soul/Weller/NME/Red Wedge/Proper Music Not Tarzan Boy layers of fat which occluded any kindness. With GA, however, the story is different. "When you look at me," the voice begins alone, "tell me what you see. Do you see no love at all?" It’s a quietly insistent request masquerading as an invitation to a wanted and/or errant lover to let go of his self-constructed restraint, not be afraid of uncertainty, and finally release himself from the past.
Although slightly less remonstrative than Eric Matthews’ bitterly gorgeous 1995 song on the same topic, "Faith To Clay" – a song which really builds on the theme of "heartache leads astray"**
**(and isn’t that a record whose time has finally and quietly come, It’s Heavy In Here by Eric Matthews? Listening to it now I hear firm portents of Antony, Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens…)
- its tearful desperation balances its emotional generosity. "When you look away, is it mean to say that she haunts you night and day? And does it hurt your heart when I say let’s start to heal the part that’s been torn?" The Girl is prepared to be slow and patient ("Just watch and learn…/I’ll show you how long it can be"). Meanwhile, behind her, the arrangement seesaws between tubular bell and tympanic explosions and quiet piano, and nudges the cage of genius in the central instrumental section where Higgins brilliantly replaces the Ivor Raymonde wannabe of the original arrangement with eerie Morricone howls and gulfs of desert wind and stray bullets, before abruptly dropping back to the 6/8 piano, which we now see is a direct descendent of Japan’s "Nightporter."
The sex-mad (as in: sex inducing madness) duologue of "Watch Me Go" and "Waiting" marks the point where the album doubles back on itself – for, as with Time (The Revelator), the record’s two halves are symmetrical mirrors. "Watch Me Go" is the sparkiest that Chemistry gets, with a great old skool hip hop meme (Salt N’ Pepa?) giving way to a Fun Boy Three skank over which the Girls sing gleefully – or are they gleeful? – about a Catherine Millet lifestyle of random sexual encounters. "Got the gasoline, pour it on, I’m ready to blow!" they exclaim rather more convincingly than when Gwen Stefani used the same metaphor a year ago. And there’s a great moment at 3:01 when a Girl (Nicola?) purrs "for sure" over a spooky Dammers keyboard line.
Spooky is the word, though, for the song’s central refrain of a night (or afternoon?) of sex, counted off in hours as John Lee Hooker (!) once did – "Quarter past two, I was dressed in red, tied up to your bed, begging on my knees/Quarter past three, I was in the shower, almost half an hour, you were at the door/Quarter past four, you came back again, said your name was Ben, then we went for more." Troubling, again, in an Isabella Rossellini/Kyle McLachlan/Blue Velvet kind of a way - I was almost willing the Girls to be saying "Bent you on my knee" rather than "begging on my knees," but with this song and its shadow "Waiting" we have to face the unlikeable but unavoidable possibility that S&M games are being enjoyed here in both S and M ways. Even here, though, Cooper’s lyric devolves into bizarre allegorical surrealism ("I’ll take a little bit of pain, OK, and the beat of the big trombone") which in turn gives way to a cackling schoolgirl chant of "I know what you’re thinking you’ve been thinking about my butt!" to fade. Who’s really cracking the whip here?
"Waiting," which musically joins some dots between "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" (as the Action might have played it in ’65) and Fine Young Cannibals’ "Good Thing," seems to confirm that the Girl has reached the limit of her involuntary adventures away from the inadequate Other. The track itself is fabulously constructed, with the triple penetration of the opening "knock knock knock" echoed throughout (see particularly the ecstatic "Toni-i-ight" at 1:23 and the swooning "sta-a-ars" at 1:34). "Who wants to come in my candy shop?" the Girls enquire, producing the spectre of Barbara Windsor on Stax (not that absurd a chimera: see Diana Dors’ extremely strange 1964 single "So Little Time," most easily obtainable on Morrissey’s Under The Influence compilation). "Throw me to the wolves!" they scream joyfully. "I’ll never get to heaven with my glass half full." But the underlying unrest persists – sardonic asides of "hey there buttercup!" jostle for prominence with lines like "I’ve been hating all this talking baby, black and blue" and "It’s been hard not trying to fight you baby with the things I do." And yet it all seems to come right by the song’s end, as a resolution of sorts is reached – "Wap! Bap! The boy can move!" So sexual "perfection" is achieved; but will it prove enough?
"Whole Lotta History" ostensibly sounds like an offcut from Grease, but it is "See The Day"’s emotional twin, and the Grease analogy is hardly a put-down; think of Olivia’s quiet prayer (Abba writing for Connie Francis in 1958?) of "Hopelessly Devoted To You" amid all the hurly-burly boys’ stuff ("Greased Lightning" et al). Except that in the ‘70s no one could have conceived the solemn Massive Attack string intro, itself in danger of becoming the cliché of musical clichés – but it’s instructive to compare the strangely timeless staccato 6/8 over 4/4 (it’s the same beat as schaffel, actually) with what Cameron McVey achieves from the same starting point with the Sugababes’ "Two Hearts."
Though the latter is by some distance the greater song, the importance of "Whole Lotta History" lies in its representation of the Girl’s turning point, her recognition that sex is thrilling for 15 minutes, but that something more substantial is needed in the long term. The musings are distended. "I give myself the blame." "Does she love you like I never could? Would she hurt you, ‘cos I never would?" (and it is urgently important to interpret that last line in both ways, if we’re talking about sex). "I’m falling all around (? With joy?) when you miss me," the Girl continues. "So tell me that you’re not alone." This is distinctly creepy stuff indeed, in the neighbourhood of Elvis Costello’s paean to frustrated S&M "I Want You." A louder and angrier Girl briefly breaks the ice – "I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t!" she roars. "But you cost me so much love" – before the stark confession (on a deserted dancefloor?) of "And it keeps me spinning and controls what happens ‘til Monday/And it might sound crazy but your voice still leaves (and that satiated purr returns again as "still leaves" is extended over four bars at 3:26-3:27) me all funky."
"Long Hot Summer," however, was a single always more likely to carry more weight in winter than in summer. It manages to parallel both "Wild Horses" and "Biology" in lyrical subject and musical construction respectively, and although the joyous major key – with that always irresistible two-chord glacier of ascending guitar to take us from the first to the second half of the chorus, like ice added to the Coke in an August Bank Holiday Brighton – might lead us to think this is the emotional inverse of Bananarama’s "Cruel Summer," its subject matter could almost make it the prequel to "Cruel Summer." "I know you like to wear my dressing gown when I’m not there," the song begins, conjuring up Lynsey de Paul’s "Getting A Drag" – "I guess you like it in my shoes/Just ‘cos you drive a Maserati and the ladies stare/Don’t mean you go as fast as I do." So it’s a complaint about the five-second squirt-it-out/light-a-cigarette approach. "Baby," they exclaim, outraged, "watch the needle when you’re heading south!" The instruction to "Slow it down!" is answered by an ironic swanee whistle before descending into the chorus. "It’s only Sunday morning and I need that Friday feeling again," the Girls muse. "Suddenly I’m freezing and I don’t know why," which is a brave assertion to make on a 2005 top ten single. Sex as work. "When your fingers start to run, it’s no fun," they break free of the rhythm to decry, and then the return to the theme of fighting – "Baby if you fight me/How you gonna like me?/Running down that Old Kent Road (the spectre of the music hall is never too far away from Chemistry’s multilayered surface)…/Why do you fight me?" – after two songs which have seen the progenitors fighting him off.
And then one of the most sinister endings to any recent pop songs as the Girls now turn to their hapless/hopeless Other, and finally to the consumer/camera/us: "A little late to take it slow," they snigger. "Like a cannonball/Got what I wanted/Now I’ve seen it all." But they also realise that they too are victims: "So finally I’ll put the shade around the world" (echoing "Biology"’s "get her head in the shade"). "It’s what I wanted…/But I just can’t lie/Now I’m queasy." Once more, that "I just can’t lie" has to be interpreted in both possible ways.
"Swinging London Town" finds GA on the other side of the "Models" mirror. "I pussyfoot from drink to drink" they snarl. "The Queen Of London Town" they proclaim uneasily as the inevitable "I Feel Love" throb makes its entry. "I’m just a big-time Gucci girl/A first in Retail Therapy/Now the downward slide to rehab" isn’t quite a swipe at Kate Moss (remember "poor boy Peter") but possibly a swipe at themselves, though thankfully not on the crass level of McLaren telling Annabella to sing about being a worthless little puppet in a band called Bow Wow Wow. "I’m starting to drown," they coo as the synths, Killing Joke guitars and beats start to pile up like atonal phenobarbitone, before they pronounce the question "Do you know me? Do you REALLY know me?"
Just as everything’s about to spill over into chaos, however, the clouds break and we drift into a reverie of avant-fluff (nice to know someone else remembers the Gentle People’s Soundtracks For Living, not to mention "Moments In Love" because everyone else will) as a desensitised Girl asks "do you love me?" as though already on transit to the afterlife, spurting out disjointed thoughts on Camparis in Soho, "cocktails with price tags to make you choke on your Sushi," and "Chelsea chicks" driving down the King’s Road in "Daddy’s Bentley" before the original track returns. The Girls continue to drown but there is a residue somewhere in the middle of their voices which betray the likelihood that they are, fundamentally, loving it, swept away in the W1/SW3 social tsunami.
Nevertheless, as an exercise in electro-urban angst "Swinging London Town" is easily on a par with the work of neglected late-‘90s operatives like Skinny and Bedlam-A-Go-Go; the emptiness as palpable as breathable damp.
"It’s Magic" – which I note closes the non-UK versions of the albums – is perhaps the simplest and most heartfelt of Chemistry songs. It is also the cleverest, as it provides a potted history of ‘80s electropop, with its intro of snarling Leer/Rental Roland bassline minimalism, then gradually building up to Depeche Mode chordality, then gliding into the sublime slow cumulonimbi of the Pet Shop Boys (the Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans of electropop – listen to the latter’s "The Happy Stranger" from 1947 followed by the PSB’s "Do I Have To?" and see for yourself***) and finally settling in late ‘80s Balearic heaven****.
***(The great altoist Lee Konitz, a lifelong collaborator with Gil Evans but also a man who called things as he patiently saw them, once gave a very simple explanation to how Gil arrived at the slow, patient, impressionist claudications of French horns and tubas which characterised his great early work: "It was music to smoke pot by. Gil was a copious pot smoker. The music moves at the same speed as the mind of the pot smoker.")
****(One of the many advantages of the new Stock/Aitken/Waterman Gold 3-CD compilation is that it has found room for the full-length 12-inch glory of Mandy Smith’s "I Just Can’t Wait," the record which invented Balearic beat and maybe SAW’s greatest achievement, fulfilling the dream, as it did, for the "artist" to disappear. And the teenage Smith does, her voice drifting in and out between banks of George Benson guitar lines and sweetly static synthesiser motifs. It remains the nearest that SAW ever came to making "art pop" and if it came out on Warp tomorrow everyone would hail it as the masterpiece it actually has been for the last eighteen years.)
And "It’s Magic" is where the Girls Aloud reverie/adventure ends and they elect to return to reality. "Other side of my world" one sings (immediately echoing the vast canyons of Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller’s immortal "The Other Side Of The World") "and I know that I’m in love with you. And there’s this tugging inside (the Girl nearly sobs on the word "tugging"). We both know I took you for a ride…/and honey, what have I done? Oh believe me I have realised…with you I know that I can be myself. I can call you crying at four in the morning on your naked bed." Again, the tenderness inherent in "See The Day" comes to the fore. "Let your body be free/That innocence/Let me set you free/It’s my chance." And the previous emotions are reversed. "You are in my thoughts (recall "It’s there in our thoughts") all the time/I need some help in shifting this heartache ("Heartache leads astray")."
It’s an extraordinary courageous admission to make on a 2005 pop record, that somehow "pop" and "sex" in themselves are not enough, that immediacy does not lead to happiness.
As the couple stroll off benignly into the New Order sunset of "It’s Magic" that couple is unmistakably Beatrice and Benedick, united, with nothing to prove, in bed or otherwise. Rationalism has prevailed, and emotion more hard won, and therefore more valuable and concrete when it emerges, as a result (as Plato pointed out, rationalism and emotion are so necessarily intertwined that the former can only realistically arise after extensive first-hand experience of the latter).
A happy ending, of sorts, and it would indeed be very tempting to leave the Girls there, discovering the simpler and better joys of some new kind of bliss.
But, as Oscar Wilde remarked, a happy ending is only possible if you don’t tell the rest of the story.
"The mask of ice that moulded her face blurred at the edges. It melted, and slid off. Her buckler and breastplate of ice turned to slush, to water. Her gauntlets of ice fell from her hands."
(Michèle Roberts, op. cit.)
As I said at the beginning of this piece, the album has two alternate endings. Or perhaps they are two different ways of expressing the same – far from happy – ending. First, "No Regrets," a morose bossa nova over which electronica burbles indistinctly, like the waters of a melted ice cube. Only one Girl appears on this song. Again, disparate memories cloud her mind – "Rainy Sundays, kids’ TV/Fish and chips in NYC" – but she knows that she has chosen to lose, to sever any connection with a workable and habitable world. "So sure the cocktail hour would last for all eternity." Finally, as she prepares to die, she beseeches us: "Just forget those heartfelt pleas/No regrets, no baby…not for me." Or, as another troubled woman once put it, remember me, but forget my fate. The scorpion and the frog…she can’t help it, it’s our nature.
And the final song, "Racy Lacey" describes in unremitting brutality the grisly fate for which she was always intended. Built on the remnants of "Sound Of The Underground" – a memory calling from a distant and now unreachable past – the Girls now assume the role of the audience, surveying what the Girl has now been reduced to. "I know this girl/She’s not too bright/But she’s educated in bed all right…/A PhD with her legs apart." At first we reel in happy disbelief that a lyric which a generation ago would have been sung, unironically, by Whitesnake or Saxon, has now been reclaimed by women…and then we realise that this is nothing to celebrate, the "she’s got undulating, punctulating, grinding hips" motif notwithstanding. "She clicks her fingers, guy comes to heel (or to heal?)/Chewed up, spat out, no big deal." The chorus itself is a music hall relic (musically) over which the Girls sing, "Boudoir beauty, it’s all that she can do…/A bedhead through and through…/She’s got this crazy mind."
A sound effects interlude of unsexily boinging bedsprings and banging headboards follows (sounding nothing like seagulls or cricket bats), after which the Girls recite the story of "Watch Me Go" from the third-party perspective: "And so this girl, I’ve heard it said, can spend up to 24 hours in bed. She gets her suitors to wait in line and she’s worn them out by half past nine." This is delivered in terms of rueful ridicule…and it is a suitably grotesque portrait of a shadow of a victim of the market who will never voluntarily break her ropes even if someone comes to untie them. Look, say the Cold Rationalists, this is what free enterprise leaves us as…sex as soap powder, love as a too-expensive/too-much-hard-work luxury, demographic husks of empty. The singer of "No Regrets" says farewell to a world she’s been told she can’t afford, and therefore proceeds to tie herself to her bed for eternity, already dead.
Fittingly the song, and therefore the album, cuts off abruptly after the final "she’s got this crazy mind," as if the C90 tape had run out (the playing time of Chemistry is 45:53) or a painful reduction of a life had been humanely severed.
"Now I am drunk on an infallible poison
That my sister Medea brought to Athens.
I feel my pulses pushing it icily
Into my feet, hands and the roots of my hair.
I see the sun’s ball through a mist,
And you, whom my very presence sickens,
I see you in a mist, darkening.
My eyes go dark. Now the sun’s light at last
Can resume its purity unspoiled."
(The closing section of Phèdre’s deathbed speech from Phèdre by Jean Racine, translated by Ted Hughes and staged shortly before his own death in 1998)